Welcome to Marwen, 2018.
Directed by Robert Zemeckis.
Starring Steve Carell, Leslie Mann, Merritt Wever, Janelle Monáe, Eiza Gonzalez, Gwendoline Christie, Leslie Zemeckis, Neil Jackson, Diane Kruger, Matt O’Leary, Falk Hentschel, Stefanie von Pfetten, Siobhan Williams.
A New York resident uses a self-built world of action figures to help combat the psychological pain of a viciously violent attack that befell him.
Mark Hogancamp is a remarkable man. His story is a remarkable one: the victim of a savage hate-crime that strips him of his memory, and unable to afford therapy, he constructs a miniature WWII village, complete with personalised action dolls, to aid him in his recovery. Hollywood’s take on this touching true tale, however, feels much less remarkable.
From a time travelling teenager to an endearing man of lowly IQ navigating through several defining moments of America’s 20th century history, Robert Zemeckis has a celebrated nous for championing the outcast. As such, when Hollywood inevitably came calling, it seems befitting that it should be him to take the reins of a story about a man cut off from the rest of the world by trauma who finds warm solace in a world of Action Men and Barbie Dolls. Equally suitable seemed to be casting of Steve Carell in the leading role: an actor who, one more than one occasion, has showcased an impressive ability to juggle the eccentric and the comedic with the convincing, the sincere, and the compelling. And yet, Welcome to Marwen – inspired by Jeff Malmberg’s 2010 documentary, Marwencol – feels like something of a disappointing mismatch.
We begin in the CGI (emphasis on the GI) world of Mark’s alter-ego: the aptly entitled ‘Captain Hogie’ (also played by Carell). He’s a rugged, cocksure WWII US pilot – an amalgamation of Bond and McQueen – who crash-lands into Belgium and is quickly ambushed by five Nazi soldiers. Only this isn’t Belgium at all, of course. It is, in fact, the titular town of Marwen: a carefully hand-crafted settlement located in Hogancamp’s own back yard. With Hogie’s luck all but run out, he is saved at the last minute by five kick-ass women – or, as the film repeatedly throws knowing winks our way, ‘Dolls’- each of whom resembles an important lady in Mark’s life.
It’s a dynamic, charming and wonderfully visual welcome into the vividness of Hogancamp’s imagination that, for some, will immediately bring back pleasant youthful memories of peaceful Gorgonites evading vicious Cammando Elite in Joe Dante’s cult (and quintessential ‘90’s) film Small Soldiers. From there, we are transported into the very real world of Marwen’s architect and builder, as a new neighbour named Nicol (Mann) – who seems to have stepped out of the 1940’s, herself – moves in across the street. Slowly, as Mark’s interest in Nicol grows and we transition regularly between Marwen and Kingston, New York, we piece together the story of Mark’s attack, the subsequent anxiety he faces every day, and the comforting escapism he finds within his art.
However, just like the world-hopping that defines Hogancamp’s life, tonally, Zemeckis’ film jumps about a fair bit; never quite feeling wholly assured of what it wants to be. Simultaneously a quirky metaphor for defeating one’s inner demons and a touching, inspirational tale of a man’s returning sense of belonging, the two stories feel rather immiscible: a coming together that Welcome to Marwen is never truly comfortable balancing.
The adventures in Marwen begin to feel a tad repetitive, while the episodes in Mark’s own life frequently skip over what appear to be rather important plot points – namely, a couple of court room scenes that the film builds towards, but ultimately seem little more than tacked on to the film’s final third to give it some sense of direction. Similarly, some of the characterisation – Nicol’s one-dimensionally confrontational ex-boyfriend Kurt (Jackson), for instance – feels underdeveloped almost to the point of being irrelevant, and only seems to distract from who the true baddies of this story are.
However, what appears most troubling for a story which, above all, is about the (re)discovery of individual identity – an aspect which Malmberg’s film explores extensively – is Welcome to Marwen’s uneasy, less-than-sensitive representation of its female characters. There’s a fine line between empowerment and objectification, and here they are, quite literally, not much more than Hogancamp’s dolls. They might be highly proficient in the art of gunning down Nazi bad-guys, but they do so clad in very little clothing whilst being unable to evade having their blouses ripped open every now and again.
That’s not to say Welcome to Marwen conjures this element of the story from thin air – Hogancamp mentions in Malmberg’s documentary that the reason for inhabiting Marwen with so many women is so that Hogie (and, by extension, Mark himself) can feel loved – but given Hogancamp’s own deeply personal connection to the female ‘essence’, it seems strange that – with the exception of Wever’s kind-hearted Roberta – we are offered very little insight into the women upon who these characters are based. Instead, we seem to learn only what they would look like Barbie-fied and chasing after Hogie in short skirts whilst toting pistols.
There’s a touching assessment of the darkness, kindness, and creativity of the human condition in there somewhere. It’s a shame then that Welcome to Marwen fails to dig beneath its showy, plastic exterior to find the deep, fleshy complexities of underpin Mark Hogancamp’s story.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★