In the rare event when a major Hollywood studio advertises one of its films as “the most original movie of the year” — as Universal has done in the trailer for “Welcome to Marwen” — it tends to be code for: “We spent a ton of money on something that we have absolutely no idea how to sell.” And while that was certainly the case here, it’s hard not to sympathize with the poor souls in the marketing department, who were tasked with promoting a story that director Robert Zemeckis had no idea how to tell. In hindsight, it seems they did the best they could. As disconcerting as it was when the previews for “Welcome to Marwen” reduced the complicated and ineffably human saga of Mark Hogancamp into a glossy inspirational fable about the power of friendship, it’s even more disconcerting to find that the film itself does much the same thing.
As those who have seen Jeff Malmberg’s documentary “Marwencol” surely remember, Hogancamp is an upstate New York artist — a recovering alcoholic with an affinity for wearing women’s shoes — who became the victim of a violent hate-crime when some neo-Nazi types beat him within an inch of his life outside the bar where he worked. When Hogancamp came out of his coma several weeks later, he’d lost almost all of his adult memories, along with his ability to perform basic life skills like walking and eating. And when his medical insurance ran out, the recovering Hogancamp was left to develop his own rehab program (score one for the American healthcare system!).
His solution? To create a rich fantasy world out of the 12-inch, 1:6 scale figures he once painted; a miniature town called Marwencol (located in Belgium circa World War II) in which he could re-enact his trauma in a refuge that was under his full control. A captain named Hogie became his pint-sized alter-ego, S.S. troops stood in for his assailants, and female dolls represented the various women in his life (Hogancamp even built a catfight bar for them to work in, as his version of the past assumed the feeling of a sweet, pulpy, and surprisingly asexual serial). The lifelike, hyper-expressive photographs he took of these scenes attracted some attention, and Hogancamp soon found himself celebrated as a naïve and enchanted outsider artist in the vein of Henry Darger or William Hawkins.
Even if “Welcome to Marwen” took this story at face value, it would still be uncomfortably strange material for a cheery holiday movie that’s determined to celebrate the human spirit. Of course, Robert Zemeckis would not be Robert Zemeckis if he took this story at face value.
On the contrary, the “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” director sees Hogancamp’s fraught, quixotic, and ongoing artistic odyssey as perfect fodder for his own. And it’s easy enough to understand why Zemeckis might feel simpatico with Hogancamp: Both men share a long history of trying to blur the line between the real and the unreal. For Hogancamp, it’s been a matter of necessity. For Zemeckis, a creative imperative. The Hollywood titan has spent 30 years trying to bridge the gap between people and ‘toons, but motion-captured movies like “Beowulf” and “The Polar Express” have plunged headlong into the uncanny valley before him (that’s why a generation of kids don’t think of Tom Hanks as “the Nicest Guy in Hollywood” so much as they do “the Zombie Train Conductor Who Almost Ruined Christmas”). In Hogancamp — who’s created his own make-believe realm of realistic-looking human figures — Zemeckis found a perfect vehicle to further his own efforts. In Zemeckis, Hogancamp likely found the money he needs for food, dolls, and cigarettes. The meta-textual link between these two men is more interesting than anything that happens in “Welcome to Marwen.”
Opening with a plane crash — as Zemeckis is wont to do — “Welcome to Marwen” drops us right into the deep end. A fighter jet piloted by the vaguely plastic Captain Hogancamp crash lands over Nazi-occupied Belgium in a scene where everything looks just a little unreal. Hogie survives the impact with a smile on his face, steals a pair of stilettos off a dead soldier, and is ambushed by some Nazi officers before he’s saved by a militia of rootin’-tootin’ ladies who might as well have rolled out of a Quentin Tarantino movie. If not for the fact that nobody has pores, and everybody moves with Barbie Doll stiffness, you might take this all at face value. But Zemeckis’ big idea is soon revealed: This is a glimpse inside Hogancamp’s unique imagination, which the film has brought to life through the dark sorcery of CGI. He’s literalized the war between himself and his demons, but he still can’t win it alone.
Back in the real world, Mark (the actual Steve Carell, giving an artificially sweetened “aw shucks” performance that paves right over Hogancamp’s rougher edges) is a depressed loner who gets by on the kindness of the women around him. All of them perform an essential role in Mark’s life, but the movie reduces most of them to the roles they inspire in his small-scale fantasy. Characters like Anna, a loud Russian caretaker embodied by Gwendoline Christie, seldom appear in the flesh; as soon as the audience knows who she is, the film tosses her aside in favor of her 1:6 counterpart. Ditto that for Julie, a one-legged physical therapist played by Janelle Monáe. Elza González and Merritt Wever get a bit more to do in the real world as Mark’s co-worker and doll-supplier respectively, but the overloaded script — co-written by Zemeckis and Caroline Thompson — never affords either of them interior lives of their own.
Of course, the two most important women in Mark’s life are the one he hasn’t met yet, and the one he can’t seem to forget. First up is Nicol (Leslie Mann), a kind and curious soul who’s just moved in to the house across the street, and is trying to shake off a tragedy of her own. She also has a greasy and abusive ex-boyfriend (Neil Jackson), who — in the most noxious of the film’s many terrible needle-drops — rolls up to the sounds of “Cat Scratch Fever” (between this film and “Flight,” Zemeckis’ music supervisor should be tried at the Hague).
Finally, there’s Deja Thoris (Diane Kruger), the wicked witch of Marwen, who murders any of the gals who get too close to her man Hogie. The only character with no human counterpart, Deja broadly represents Mark’s loneliness, though ham-fisted writing and her pill-blue hair make her seem like a manifestation of the anti-depressants that he takes every morning. The messaging here is dangerous at best, as the more complex truths of Mark’s trauma are steamrolled by Zemeckis’ reckless desire to turn the guy’s mind into a theme park ride.
Perhaps, in other hands, “Welcome to Marwen” could have offered a convincing visual expression of Hogancamp’s pain and the unique means by which he learned to love it. Invasive as this movie was always going to feel, the motion-capture approach is a potentially clever way of flattening the distance between the real Mark and the refuge he’s built for himself; the technology should allow us to see Marwen through his mind’s eye (though it’s a bit weird how the dolls look exactly like the actors they’re meant to represent, as Mark buys all of his figures off the shelf).
But to what end? As exciting as it might be when Mark’s PTSD turns an important court appearance into an actual battlefield, or when his need for companionship is represented in a wild shootout that launches Marwen into the space age, the film’s well-intentioned efforts to animate Mark’s imagination instead tend to draw right over it, making an empty spectacle of actual suffering.
In theory, this was a neat idea. In practice, Zemeckis encounters the same problem that stymied Malmberg’s documentary: Hogancamp’s photographs are so powerful in the first place because they already are the purest expression of his pain, and every subsequent attempt to bring his art to a broader audience widens the distance between what’s real and what’s not. Hogancamp created Marwencol as a way to make sense of his world, but Zemeckis’ attempt to twist that coping mechanism into a feel-good story of friendship and resilience has a way of cheapening its actual value. The cathartic beauty of Hogancamp’s dolls is in the emotion he projects onto their paralyzed faces, and seeing them express themselves via motion-capture only makes their creator less relevant to his own story.
For all of its CGI wizardry, the drama of “Welcome to Marwen” winds up feeling as artificially manufactured as the miniature figurines who bring it to life. Carell is almost too empathetic a screen presence, as the actor struggles to split the difference between a goofy everyman and a broken artist; the ingratiating cuteness of his performance makes it hard to believe in Mark’s pain. The rest of the cast is reduced to window-dressing, as Mark’s semi-platonic relationships with the various women in his life are forged with the kind of nonsense logic that would only hold together in a rom-com. It’s always dicey to create a male-driven narrative about the intrinsic goodness of women, but there’s something fascinating about how Mark clings to his holy reverence for the grace and kindness of the fairer sex. And yet, Zemeckis is so determined to force Mark through the standard beats of a feel-good story that “Welcome to Marwen” eventually curdles into a softer version of “Sucker Punch,” where even the strongest female characters are only there to serve a man’s fantasy.
A story about the relationship between truth and imagination that completely misjudges the relationship between truth and imagination, “Welcome to Marwen” (note that it’s “Marwen” and not “Marwencol,” a difference the movie explains in cringe-worthy fashion) finds one artist running roughshod over another in a way that dilutes them both. In trying to celebrate the healing powers of art, Zemeckis has created a sometimes fun, often morbidly compelling, and always ill-advised testament to the ways in which those healing powers can create problems of their own.
“The most original movie of the year?” Not quite. But sometimes, if a film is this hard to sell, perhaps that’s a sign that it shouldn’t have been made in the first place.
Universal Pictures will release “Welcome to Marwen” in theaters on Friday, December 21.