Dateworthy? “Welcome to Marwen”
Is “Welcome to Marwen” worth a movie date night this holiday season? No.
This film is from the dynamic duo of star Steve Carell and Oscar-winning visionary director Robert Zemeckis (“Forrest Gump”). It should have been an innovative effects extravaganza and an inspiring true-life tale. Instead, it’s a jumbled, jarring and tone-deaf mess that is one of the year’s biggest disappointments.
The human mind is a fragile construct. It’s a maze of nerves and tissue that controls every aspect of our bodies. The brain holds the memories we accrue over a lifetime of experiences. Losing one’s memories and most basic awareness of how to function in life due to a traumatic incident would have to be one of the most harrowing things a human being could go through.
Yet that is exactly what an upstate New York man named Mark Hogancamp experienced on April 8, 2000. A group of five men beat him nearly to death after he told them he was a cross-dresser. He spent nine days in a coma and forty days in a hospital. He emerged with brain damage that left him little memory of his previous life.
Hogancamp brought himself back to some semblance of sanity in a unique way. He created a 1/6 scale model of a World War II-era Belgian town he named Marwencol. He filled it with dolls depicting himself, his friends and even his attackers. Then, he created elaborate fantasies in which his doll, nicknamed “Hogie,” was an American fighter pilot. His array of female friends were a ruthless fighting force. They provided him backup in battles against Nazi dolls representing the men who brutalized him.
An amazing real-life story that is apparently impossible to pull off narratively
After setting up precisely positioned scenarios, Hogancamp photographs them. This results in stunningly detailed adventures that have become the focus of galleries worldwide. The photos also appear in a terrific coffee-table book and a stunning 2010 documentary called “Marwencol.”
Now his unlikely story is the focus of a new narrative feature film called “Welcome to Marwen.” Oscar-nominated actor Steve Carell plays Hogancamp amid a big-budget effects extravaganza helmed by the visionary director Robert Zemeckis (“Back to the Future”).
That dynamic duo should have been able to craft a movie that would compete for this year’s Academy Awards. Unfortunately, their take on Hogancamp’s story resulted in a disappointing failure. The movie is loud, tonally jarring, emotionally manipulative and poorly paced exercise in mediocrity that has little of the magic found in his photographs.
The movie opens with Hogancamp’s heroic alter ego Hogie on a daring run in his bomber. He’s about to crash-land in a forest. What should be a sequence of slam-bang excitement is so artificially rendered that it’s hard for viewers to absorb themselves into. When the plane crashes and we see Hogancamp in the real world photographing the results, a major qualitative problem presents itself.
Bad dialogue brings high-flying fantasy sequences crashing down to earth
From those opening moments throughout the rest of the film, Zemeckis and his normally-ace co-screenwriter Caroline Thompson (“Edward Scissorhands,” “The Nightmare Before Christmas”) have utterly slack pacing in the real-world scenes that ruins any sense of magic momentum that might come across in the fantasy sequences. They also have incredibly heavy-handed expository dialogue throughout that wouldn’t have passed muster in a Screenwriting 101 class at a community college.
Hogancamp struggles in his relations with other people. But he has a particularly complex time dealing with the women in his life. One doll represents a co-worker at the bar in which he was beaten. Another runs the hobby shop where he purchases all his dolls and art supplies. Yet another doll represents the physical therapist who taught him to walk again on the prosthetic leg he was forced to use after the beating forced an amputation.
But there are two other women whose dolls come to prominence in the film’s story line. One is representing the cute, sweet woman named Nicol (Leslie Mann) who moves in across the street from him after escaping an abusive boyfriend. The other a fantasy figure he calls Deja whom he believes is a witch sent to interfere and ruin any and all attempts at relationships. Hogancamp tries to forge a relationship with Nicol. But he also faces the impending court date in which his attorney has asked him to appear and testify against his attackers to ensure their prison sentences are severe. The problem is that he is so traumatized he may not be able to appear at all.
Unfortunately, it’s more head-shaking than heart-tugging
“Welcome to Marwen” wears its heart on its sleeve. The film clearly wants to be a heartwarming classic along the lines of Zemeckis’ “Forrest Gump.” But with its storytelling and stylistic approaches a mess, it is nearly impossible to take seriously. Quietly emotional real-world moments give way to noisy, scream-filled sequences of Nazi attacks made by dolls. The sight of Carell in an array of high heels as he starts to confidently embrace his desire to explore his feminine side is truly bizarre to behold throughout.
“Marwen” comes close to being bad enough to laugh at, without quite reaching that ignoble status. Its doll effects are admittedly stunning. The film is on the Academy’s shortlist of the 10 movies of 2018 that are eligible for a Best Visual Effects nomination. But the film also has a cloyingly sappy score, poor writing, a hysterical (in all the wrong ways) performance by Carell and a near-complete lack of control by Zemeckis. You’ll be looking to leave “Marwen” as quickly as possible.
Story: 5 out of 10
Performances: 5 out of 10
Emotions: 2 out of 10
Effects: 9 out of 10
Overall: 5 out of 10
Carl Kozlowski is a Catholic comedian, film reviewer, and journalist who is also the founder and co-owner of the podcast station www.radiotitans.com in Los Angeles. He reviews movies for the Catholic News Agency as well as the Christian site Movieguide.org, but has also worked with secular outlets including the Pasadena Weekly, Chicago Tribune and Esquire. He has also produced and hosted comedy shows for the LA Catholic Archdiocese's charities and performed at some of the nation's top clubs and with top comics including Dane Cook and Dave Chappelle. He strives to find the way to work with both Christian and secular audiences in all his career paths.