A film review by Craig J. Koban January 12, 2019

WELCOME TO MARWEN jjj
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2018, PG-13, 116 mins.

 

Steve Carell as Mark Hogancamp  /  Leslie Mann as Nicol  /  Merritt Wever as Roberta  /  Janelle MonŠe as GI Julie  /  Diane Kruger as Deja Thoris  /  Eiza GonzŠlez as Caralala  /  Gwendoline Christie as Anna  /  Stefanie von Pfetten as Wendy  /  Leslie Zemeckis as Suzette  /  Siobhan Williams as Elsa  /  Neil Jackson as Kurt

 

Directed by Robert Zemeckis  /  Written by Zemeckis and Caroline Thompson

 

 

 

Robert Zemeckis' WELCOME TO MARWEN is a new fact based drama that tells the endlessly strange, yet endearing story of artist and photographer Mark Hogancamp, who in April of 2000 was viciously attacked outside of a bar by five men, nearly being beaten to death in the process.  He drunkenly admitted to them that he had a penchant for wearing women's shoes, which precipitated their hate crime attack.  After nine days in a coma and 40 days in the hospital, Hogancamp was discharged and left a mentally and physically broken man.  Even worse yet, he suffered from debilitating brain injuries that caused him severe memory loss. 

It's at this point where things get...a tad...weird. 

Unable to process any tangible memories and struggling daily with horrendous side effects of PTSD, Hogancamp decided to use some unorthodox ingenuity and constructed meticulously hand crafted miniatures of a WWII-era Belgium village - dubbed "Marwen" - that was populated by doll sized action figures that he placed in various dramatic configurements to then photograph.  His own image even made its way into one of the dolls, as did several of his local friends and even some of his attackers.  For the most part, this bizarre diorama became Hogancamp's artistic outlet for some much needed self-therapy, and it was that fusion of fact and fantasy via Marwen that allowed him to cope with the arduous grind of recovery.  Hogancamp's highly unique story hones in on themes of the powerful healing abilities of art and, in many respects, is a highly offbeat tale of one man's trauma and ultimate salvation.   

 

 

Hogancamp's story was already the subject of a documentary, MARWENCOL, but it would seem like only a matter of time before Hollywood would snatch up this life is stranger than fiction tale for a feature film.  Zemeckis' previous film, the criminally underrated THE WALK (also based on a documentary,  based on Philippe Petit's tightrope walk between the World Trade Center buildings in the 1970s), fused a compellingly odd fact based narrative with state of the art visual effects, and WELCOME TO MARWEN seems like a natural extension of that.  Zemeckis has been no stranger to pioneering films that pushed the boundaries of filmmaking technology (see WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT, FORREST GUMP, and THE POLAR EXPRESS), and WELCOME TO MARWEN's startlingly bold recreations of Hogancamp's miniature world - done with what I'm assuming is bravura CGI and motion capture - are a sight to behold.  The larger takeaway, though, from this film is how Zemeckis continues to seek rich variety in his subject matter, and in this instance finds a thankless manner of making Hogancamp's story one of feel good inspiration that doesn't instantly take road most traveled approaches to the material to make him an easy persona of instant hero worship. 

WELCOME TO MARWEN opens in spectacular fashion, featuring an extended sequence all set in the microcosm of Hogancamp's miniature universe and introduces us to his doll avatar, Hoagie, who seems like one of those iconic war action heroes that takes names and kicks vile and nasty Nazi ass.  He's surrounded and assisted by a squadron of easy-on-the-eyes female mercenaries, all dressed in ridiculously fetishistic outfits: Anna (Gwendoline Christie), Caralala (Eliza Gonzales), Julie (Janella Monae), and Roberta (Merritt Wever), all of whom have real world doppelgangers in Mark's surrounding community.  The story then segues out of this imaginary world and into the more dreary and depressing reality based state of affairs of Mark Hogancamp (Steve Carell), who lives in a broken down shack of a home that has little Post-it notes everywhere reminding the memory-plagued assault victim do to mundane everyday tasks, the most important of which is to take his medicine.  Mark has issues with separating fact from fiction at times, making him an odd nut for any new potential friend to crack.  He does get befriended by a kindly new neighbor in Nicol (Leslie Mann), who tries to provide some comfort for him as he prepares for the hellish day when he has to confront his attackers in a very public sentencing hearing.

I think a lesser film would have approached the central relationship between Nicol and Mark in purely romantic terms and would have avoided all mention of the latter's cross dressing nature.  Zemeckis has none of that here, and he commendably commits himself to this challenging and potentially polarizing material by never avoiding some its more peculiar and eccentric elements.  Caroline Thompson's screenplay shows respect and understanding for Mark's obsession over women's footwear and how he uses his dolls in Marwen to present a romanticized and hyper sexualized portrait of femininity and sexuality.  A lot of these details would have been scrapped by most studio efforts for fear of losing an audience, but Zemeckis and Thompson thoroughly explore Mark escaping into women's fashions and miniatures, both of which serve as an outlet to deal with multiple pains.  There are certain scenes and hints here and there that seem to be leading viewers to think that Mark and Nicol could become an unlikely item, but WELCOME TO MARWEN is clever in subverting our expectations.  Nicol - and many in his hometown - are nurturing and supportive of Mark, despite his eccentricities. 

Carell and Mann are quite superb together on screen with their very difficult to render character dynamics.  Mann perhaps has the most tricky performance task, having to play a considerte woman - also suffering through personal heartbreak and strife - that yearns to be a platonic confidant to Mark, even when his violent mood swings often make for supremely awkward social interactions.  Carell is reliably stellar as well, having to play a character that's afforded multiple subtle layers by the screenplay beyond his hyperactive fits and self-damaging quirks that could have made Mark a real turn off to audience members.  Hogancamp was a terrible victim in real life of a truly heinous crime, and he suffered through a nightmarish recovery process that changed his life negatively forever.  But he was also no saint, being a crippling alcoholic and had an almost maddening detachment from reality that tainted any meaningful ties he had with people.  Part of the genius of Carell's work here is that he makes Hogancamp both a figure of easy pity that's also a mysterious and sometimes frustrating cipher.  He has his kooky charms, to be sure, but he also comes off as a man that would be hard to sustain a conversation with for more than a minute or two.  I admired how Carell's dexterous performance and Zemeckis' direction never paints an easy portrait of Hogancamp as an easily relatable protagonist.

Zemeckis balances the harsher truths and sad insular world that Mark resided in well with the dazzling small scale world of Marwen, which we are often plunged head first into and the animation and VFX featuring Hoagie and his hit girl squad bravely confronting Nazi atrocities gives WELCOME TO MARWEN a welcome sense of comic relief from the mental horrors of Mark's recovery.  These sequences are also a source of some of the film's most cheeky laughs, often which are derived from the plastic-like nature of the dolls and how they interact with one another, oftentimes with Quentin Tarantino levels of INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS violence.  Still, we never lose sight of the fact that behind all of this artistic absurdity is Mark's complete and intimate investment in it.  The absolute exactitude by which Mark creates this diminutive universe for him to cathartically exorcise his personal demons highlights the transformative power of art to escape from painful realities. 

Not all of WELCOME TO MARWEN comes together with an overriding sense of eclectic freshness.  Mark's very story arc follows obligatory paths, replete with traditional plot mechanizations of a mentally unraveled and damaged underdog that finds a way to cope via his imagination...and with a little help from some considerate and accepting friends.  This type of story has been told countless times before, leaving the basic narrative of Mark's journey hitting some predictive beats.  But that's not to say that Zemeckis has made an easy going feel good movie that takes simple detours to make it easily palpable for viewers.  WELCOME TO MARWEN has emerged, rather sadly, as a box office and critical disaster, but I find myself in the minority for greatly admiring its choices with demanding and touchy material.  It's also compellingly unique has finds intriguing ways of dealing honestly with mental illness (often avoided in mainstream cinema) and how art can soothe the soul.  It's also as technically masterful as anything Zemeckis has ever made, and Carell and Mann's performances are genuinely heartfelt and sincere without coming off as maudlin.  

Mark Hogancamp's life is indeed equal parts distressing, outlandish, and inspiring, but Zemeckis embraces and celebrates this artist in a heartfelt and engaging manner in ways that few other filmmakers would be able to muster

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