Review: Welcome to Marwen

It’s easy to see why Robert Zemeckis was attracted to the true-life story of Mark Hogancamp. Zemeckis’s brief since the Back to the Future series has been fantasy that comments on who we are right now, “we” being invariably Americans. Hogancamp, an illustrator who lives in upstate New York, was assaulted by a group of neo-Nazis who objected to his cross-dressing habits and left him with scars, brain damage, and severe PTSD, all of which ended his career and deprived him of much of his memory. In order to cope, he turned to dolls, and interpolated his struggle into a World War II action tale about him and a group of multi-cultural female commandos taking on German soldiers. He would set up tableaux with the dolls and then photograph them. These photos were recognized as pieces of art and Hogancamp became famous, though the fame only worked to exacerbate his psychological problems—or so Zemeckis’s movie would have you believe.

In the film, Hogancamp’s (Steve Carell) immediate concern is his upcoming testimony against his attackers in court for sentencing. He dreads having to confront them, and the fear sparks nightmares and periods of intense isolation, escaping only to Marwen, the fictional Belgian town he has created in miniature in his backyard. The female soldiers in his make-believe world are all based on women in his waking life—a physiotherapist (Janelle Monae), a bartender (Eiza Gonzalez), the manager of the hobby store where he buys his dolls (Meritt Wever), his visiting nurse (Gwendoline Christie), and a porn actress who he has only seen in films (Leslie Zemeckis). Except for the latter, these women pity and support him, and he repays their kindness by making them action heroes. The ringer is Nicol (Leslie Mann), a new neighbor who also shows pity and provides support, both of which Hogancamp mistakes for romantic interest with predictably tragic results.

But not that tragic. Zemeckis, who has always been pretty good at addressing potentially sentimental material without over-sentimentalizing it (Forrest Gump is the glaring exception), fails to bring the viewer fully into Hogancamp’s mindset, and his regard for women comes across mostly as fetishization. This feeling is mostly due to the transformation of real life characters into dolls, a trick of CGI that’s right up Zemeckis’s alley and adds the requisite entertainment factor to a story that should be almost too painful to watch. But the real-life characters are no less filmic constructs than the doll characters are, and it’s difficult to form any emotional connection with any of them. It’s not as if Welcome to Marwen were two different movies that didn’t work together. It’s more like Zemeckis couldn’t muster the creative vigor to make the contrast between Hogancamp’s real world existence and the life of the (damaged) mind meaningful. It’s simply an exercise in CGI empathy.

Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Chanter Hibiya (050-6868-5001), Shibuya Cine Quinto (03-3477-5905).

Welcome to Marwen home page in Japanese.

photo (c) 2018 Universal Studios

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