Welcome to Marwen: Robert Zemeckis' Hollywoodization deflates an amazing true story

By Liam Lacey

Rating: D

The amazing-but-true story of the idiosyncratic artist, Mark Hogancamp, has been turned into a bloated Hollywood techno fantasy that should be seen to be disbelieved.  

The film is Welcome to Marwen, directed by Robert Zemeckis (master of technology-driven emotional favourites, Forrest Gump and Back to the Future). It stars Steve Carell as a shy and wide-eyed , adorable misfit artist in a Capra-esque small-town in Upper New York State, where almost everyone is a protective friend. 

The exceptions are five sneering punks who are in prison awaiting sentencing for beating him into a coma one night, after he carelessly mentioned  he liked wearing women's shoes.

Steve Carell and Merritt Wever play dolls for a purpose in Welcome to Marwen

Steve Carell and Merritt Wever play dolls for a purpose in Welcome to Marwen

Fortunately, Hogancamp's real story has already been well told in Jeff Malmberg's award-winning 2010 documentary Marwencol  (the title change  is explained in the new movie).  

In 2000, Hogancamp was a 38-year-old navy vet, town drunk and amateur illustrator living in the small town of Kingston, New York, not far from Woodstock.  The beating he received left him brain-damaged, after which he lost his taste for alcohol and most of his memory. In the process of recovery, Hogancamp evolved into an outsider artist, creating obsessively detailed photo narratives of a model Second World War Belgian town named Marwencol (named for Mark, and two women acquaintances, Wendy and Colleen), built to 1/6 scale in his backyard from scrap construction materials and populated by dozens of Barbie dolls and G.I. Joe action figures. 

Mark's own avatar, "Hoagie," wore the peaked cap and bomber jacket of Bob Crane's character in the sixties' sitcom, Hogan's Heroes. A local artist championed Hogancamp's work and the photos found their way to a Manhattan gallery in 2006; the documentary and a best-selling book followed.

Substantial portions of Zemeckis' movie takes place in the director's version of Hogancamp's miniature world, which proves a demonstration of how to transform lo-fi personal art into a bad Hollywood commodity. Although much care and expensive CGI technology has been used to blend the actors' faces with doll figures, we remain stuck in an uncanny and ugly valley. 

The noisy scenes of combat, torture, featuring screaming Nazis and a bevy of lingerie-clad dolls, (Janelle Monáe, Eiza González, Merritt Wever and Gwendoline Christie, each of whom has a real-world counterpart) emphasize the pulpy vulgarity of Hogancamp's vision rather than its agonized delicacy. Zemeckis' movie also introduces the character of an evil blue-haired Nazi-sympathizing "Belgian witch" (Diane Kruger), presumably inspired by Pinocchio’s Blue Fairy, who has placed a curse on Mark, manifested in his dependence on anti-depressants. 

Apart from being an irresponsible anti-medication message, the evil Blue Witch undermines Mark's "women are the saviours of the world" message.

As the story sifts back and forth between the live action and animated worlds, Mark faces two big, and conveniently simultaneous life-affirming moments: Making a victim statement at the sentencing trial of his attackers, and preparing for his big New York art show. 

As well as collapsing these events together, Zemeckis and co-screenwriter Caroline Thompson have fictionalized Hogancamp's real-life story substantially, introducing an attractive empathetic neighbour named Nicol (Leslie Mann), who gains his attention by walking around the neighbourhood wearing a sundress with stiletto heels.

Mann's character is girlish, perky, and entirely chill with his shoe fetish and mental health issues -- but she’s also absurdly oblivious to Mark's infatuation with her, even though Carell’s default expression is to fixate on her like a spaniel admiring a porkchop. 

But not all is lost – the cringe-factor achieves a kind of cumulative mass at the point where Mark declares his love to Nicol. Mortified and flustered, she struggles to find a way to let him down gently. The scene, which is prolonged and clammily uncomfortable, provides one of the few painfully human moments in this mostly plastic movie.

A note on the Nazi fetish: Nicol has a violent former boyfriend (Neil Jackson), who, in Mark's imagination, takes the shape of an SS officer and triggers traumatic flashbacks of Mark's life-changing beating. In another of Zemeckis' film inventions, one of Mark's attackers wears a swastika tattoo on his bicep. That detail may have seemed preposterously heavy-handed before the 2017 Charlottesville rally revealed modern Nazis are more than a creepy pulp fantasy. 

 Welcome to Marwen. Director: Robert Zemeckis. Screenplay: Caroline Thompson, Robert Zemeckis. Starring: Steve Carell, Leslie Mann, Diane Kruger, Janelle Monáe, Eiza González, Merritt Wever, Gwendoline Christie. Welcome to Marwen can be seen at  Cineplex Yonge and Dundas, Canada Square, Cineplex Empress Walk and Queensway Theatre.