Review: Welcome to Marwen

by Andrew Parker

A well intentioned, but woefully misguided attempt to mine real life trauma for feel good whimsy, the effects driven wannabe crowd pleaser Welcome to Marwen has a lot of great technology, solid ideas, and a genuine, earnest desire to uplift, but it never realizes that it’s approach is astoundingly clueless and shallow. Based on a true story that became one of the most beloved documentaries of all time, and brought to the big screen by veteran blockbuster director Robert Zemeckis, Welcome to Marwen is a film constantly at war with itself. Half the film is a fairly reasoned, detailed, and frustratingly opaque look at a man using his hobbies to overcome unspeakable, scarring post traumatic stress. The other half is a wrongheaded fantasy picture that undercuts and undermines everything the good half of the picture is trying to accomplish. In the end, it’s the bad half and some truly terrible decisions that win the battle, but overall the film is fighting the good fight, even if it has no clue what that actually entails.

Illustrator and artist Mark Hogancamp (Steve Carell) was brutally assaulted and nearly killed by several men outside a bar in upstate New York when he let it slip in casual, drunken conversation that he has a thing for wearing women’s shoes. His road to physical recovery was long and painful, but his mental health was irreparably damaged. Left with no memories of almost anything that happened prior to the assault – to a point where he can’t even draw anymore – and crippling social anxiety that only intensifies whenever he’s triggered into thinking about the event, Mark largely keeps to himself and refuses to let any of his numerous friends get close enough to provide support. Unable to work in the medium he once excelled in, Mark creates a new hobby for himself. He buys various World War II era dolls and builds elaborate, scale model re-creations of life in small town Belgium, using photography to tell a grand story of an American flying ace who protects the community with the help of his female friends.

It takes a longer than advisable amount of time for Zemeckis and co-writer Caroline Thompson (The Addams Family, Edward Scissorhands, The Nightmare Before Christmas) to get around to explaining the most important and empathetic aspects of Hogancamp’s tragic story, instead spending more time and energy into making the photographer’s fantasy world into visually dazzling set pieces that make the actors look like articulated action figures with uncannily smoothed out faces. It takes so long for Welcome to Marwen to make any sort of tangible points about Hogancamp’s life that one fears for almost the entire first half of the movie that Zemeckis and Thompson are willing to sweep the human interest portion of the story completely under the run in favour of effects driven whimsy.

Welcome to Marwen is inspired in no small part by director Jeff Malmberg’s award winning documentary, Marwencol, and while Zemeckis does his best to distance himself from the pre-existing and resoundingly better project, a deeper understanding of Hogancamp’s obsessions and neuroses feels like a prerequisite. Without already knowing what it is that Hogancamp does to cope with his anxieties and fears, the character comes across as a bog standard oddball, and his actions exist in a vacuum. Zemeckis and Thompson want to coyly tap dance around Hogancamp’s past for the sake of a big reveal, but the problem with that is that viewers who already know what happened will be treated to an unsurprising, heavily fictionalized version of events, and anyone who comes into Welcome to Marwen without any knowledge of the main character’s life will likely be left puzzled at best and treated to a cheap, tawdry, and reductionist “feel good” movie at worst.

Welcome to Marwen is based on a true story in the same way that the maudlin and insufferable Patch Adams was based on a true story. It might not be as dreadful and loose with the truth as the Robin Williams film about a doctor who believes laughter is the best medicine, but both films boast similarly bothersome ideas about mental illness and recovery. While there’s poignancy to be found in a story of someone who retreats into their work and a fantasy world to provide a sense of comfort and control over a world they’ve grown afraid of, Welcome to Marwen is willing to forsake any serious and fruitful discussions in favour of cheap sentimentality, embarrassingly forced plot twists, and an overwhelming desire to take Hogancamp’s work far too literally and not contextually.

Explaining the world of Marwen is both simple and difficult at the same time. With only a few exceptions, each of the characters in Mark’s fantasy world are avatars for people closest to him. The dolls might be representing World War II archetypal characters, but the personalities they exhibit are those of their real life counterparts. There are dolls representing Roberta (Merritt Wever), the kindly hobby store clerk who’s trying desperately to get Mark to open up more; Anna (Gwendoline Christie), his Russian caregiver; Jane (Janelle Monáe), an amputee servicewoman who helped Mark complete his rigorous physical therapy; Caralala (Eiza González), a kindhearted co-worker at the bar and grill Mark works at, and Suzette (Leslie Zemeckis), who represents his favourite porn star. At the start of the film, Mark has “killed off” a doll representing Wendy (Stefanie von Pfetten), the woman who found his beaten body and saved his life, mostly because she moved away and there’s an implication of unrequited feelings of love. Wendy has been replaced in Hogancamp’s dioramas by Nicol (Leslie Mann), a sweetheart redhead who just moved in across the street who’s trying to distance herself from an obsessive ex-boyfriend (Neil Jackson).

Whenever things start getting too difficult for Mark to handle reality, the film thrusts viewers directly into a fantasy world where these characters do battle with evil Nazis and a nefarious, curiously out of place Belgian witch (Diane Kruger), who I think is supposed to ickily represent Hogancamp’s ex-wife: a character that’s never expressly talked about, but comes up frequently in a sequence where the protagonist looks through an old scrapbook. I could be wrong about that last part, but every one of these characters with the exception of Wever and Mann’s (both of whom are great, but saddled with uncomfortable romantic subplots involving Mark) are so one dimensional, barely acknowledged, and personality free that it’s hard to care about what happens in the fantasy realm. If nothing is known about these people and their relationships in the real world, it’s impossible to care about the film’s visually accomplished and impeccably production designed fantasy sequences.

The derring-do and pulpy stories played out in Marwen don’t actually show Hogancamp working through his problems and anxieties constructively. Instead, they’re simply included to give viewers something gorgeously hollow to look at. There’s a much better version of Welcome to Marwen lurking within Zemeckis’ material that doesn’t involve a shred of special effects trickery, and I often found myself wondering how much better the film would’ve been with the same cast, beefed up characters, and all of the fantasy sequences axed entirely. Zemeckis, who loves to showcase his mastery of new technologies and concepts with his work, isn’t the right man for this job. He’s too focused on spectacle, and not at all on character or complex human emotions.

I believe that Welcome to Marwen has its heart in the right place, but it’s take on Mark’s long road to artistic fulfillment and recovery is utterly clueless and dangerously misguided. The first half of the film, while difficult to engage with thanks to Zemeckis and Thompson’s poorly structured script, isn’t all that bad in the grand scheme of things, and it’s vastly preferable to the film’s abysmal climax, where Mark’s recovery suddenly snaps into high gear in convenient enough time for this hurting and troubled man to attend the sentencing of his attackers. Never showing the benefits of actual therapy or the impact Mark’s friends had on him, Welcome to Marwen ends with a dangerous message that self-actualization is the only form of recovery that matters. Mark dumps out all of his pills, breaks the spell of the witchy doll simply by yelling at it, and then everything works out fine enough to attend a gallery show of his photography. Zemeckis has spent so much time, effort, and money on creating its accomplished visuals and shoving a happy ending down the viewers’ throats that it never realizes that it has been talking down to and making light of the experiences of its main character the entire time. If the climax of Welcome to Marwen is a conscious choice, it’s a downright evil, insidious, and backwards one, but given the evidence provided by the film’s emotional shoddiness and manipulation, I’m willing to bet that it’s more the result of questions no one involved with the production bothered to ask or answer. It’s too slapdash, slight, and unfocused to actually be offensive, but it would be dangerous if anyone were to take its half-assed picture of recovery as gospel.

Welcome to Marwen is nearly saved by Carell’s terrific leading performance, which gets a surprising amount of Hogancamp’s personality right where Zemeckis and the rest of his team gets things absolutely wrong. Looking and moving every bit like his real life counterpart – right down to the jorts and cigarette dangling from his lips – Carell has clearly been studying the effects of trauma and coping skills. Whenever Carell has to go into the fantasy world and become Mark’s braver, wittier, and sexier alter ego, all of that nuance goes out the window, but the actor’s take on the actual person behind the world is uncanny. Carell’s turn as Mark elevates even the worst scenes in Welcome to Marwen almost to a point just shy of respectability. He looks like a sad person in a great deal of pain, but Zemeckis is too focused on other things to let Carell’s performance dictate the film’s direction and dramatic momentum. To Zemeckis, Carell is just a necessary piece of set dressing.

Welcome to Marwen only works as a crowd pleaser if you staunchly refuse to engage with it on anything more than a surface level, but that would be such a hollow and empty experience that it’s not worth attempting. It will set off the bullshit detectors of anyone who has seen the documentary of Hogancamp’s life, but Welcome to Marwen won’t make much sense to anyone who hasn’t already familiarized themself with the story before going into it. The actors know how to depict trauma, but the director and co-writer is too focused on the film’s superficial needs to notice. Instead of making a moving motion picture about a complex and unusual subject, Zemeckis has turned Welcome to Marwen into a crowd pleaser that will only wring tears and laughs out of people who would have such reactions to thirty second television commercials. There’s already a vastly better film out there about Hogancamp and his work, and why anyone would bother with Welcome to Marwen or think that it’s a better take on the story is beyond my comprehension of human nature.

Welcome to Marwen opens in theatres everywhere on Friday, December 21, 2018.

Check out the trailer for Welcome to Marwen:

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