Fans of Jeff Malmberg’s documentary Marwencol (2010) might understandably approach the Hollywoodization of its true-life tale, Robert Zemeckis’ Welcome to Marwen, with trepidation. The background: In April 2000, upstate New York resident Mark Hogancamp was beaten to within an inch of his life after he drunkenly told some bar patrons he enjoyed wearing women’s shoes. He spent nine days in a coma and over a month in a hospital recovering. The attack effectively erased all memory of his past and eradicated his addiction to alcohol.
Hogancamp had always enjoyed drawing, but since the encounter left him with shaky hands, he turned to photography. He built a scale model World War II-era Belgian village in his backyard and populated it with refurbished dolls and action figures, many of whom had real-life analogs. He christened the village “Marwencol,” a combination of his name and those of two post-attack crushes, Wendy and Colleen. He then acted out and photographed a number of imagined melodramas within its borders involving an American soldier, an army of women and Nazi villains. This helped him cope with his assault and his absent recollections, until a chance encounter with another photographer, David Naugle, afforded Hogancamp the opportunity to show his work at a New York art gallery.
Strange and affecting.
You’d expect any dramatic retelling of this story, especially one starring bona fide movie star Steve Carell as Hogancamp, to dispense with the gender-expression component and sand down some of the character’s rougher edges. The advertising for Welcome to Marwen certainly attempts to sell the film in the most generic, feel-good terms possible. Yet Zemeckis and co-screenwriter Caroline Thompson manage to balance the demands of a crowd-pleasing production while keeping Hogancamp’s idiosyncrasies (his liking for women’s shoes is integral to his character — he defines it as an “essence” as opposed to a “fetish”) as well as his introverted tendencies fully intact.
It helps that Zemeckis himself is something of an odd duck, especially when it comes to technical matters. The opening scene of Welcome to Marwen visualizes one of Hogancamp’s flights of fancy as his miniature alter ego, American Air Force Captain Hoagie, crashes his plane just outside the fictional Belgian village. Hoagie was created via motion capture, so his face has that “uncanny valley” look (Steve Carell, but smoothed-out, plasticine Steve Carell) for which many critics and viewers have repeatedly knocked Zemeckis since his early mo-cap experiments in The Polar Express (2004) and Beowulf (2007).
The effect is appropriate here, as it was in his underrated adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (2009), since the unearthliness fits perfectly within Hogancamp’s self-created fantasia, and because Zemeckis contrasts his protagonist’s therapeutic pipe dream with his less-than-ideal reality.
Many times a scene plays out within the town of Marwen (all heightened crises and vertiginous visuals), until a shutter click freezes both the action and the extravagant score by frequent Zemeckis collaborator Alan Silvestri. The camera then pulls back through a still-picture viewfinder — the first time in a fashion not so far removed from the stunning across-the-universe opening of Zemeckis’ science-fiction parable Contact (1997) — to reveal Carell as the all-too-human Hogancamp. It quickly becomes clear that he’s using this thundering land of make believe, and his photographs of it, to drown out a dreary and painful actuality.
Zemeckis and Thompson condense the true story for dramatic effect. Hogancamp’s art show, his in-court reckoning with his attackers and his burgeoning friendship with across-the-street neighbor/composite character Nicol (Leslie Mann) all occur within the same short span of time. This mirrors the frantic action in mo-capped Marwen where the often high-heel-bedecked Hoagie hangs with an all-lady battalion played by Mann, Eiza Gonzalez, Merritt Wever, Gwendoline Christie, Janelle Monae and Leslie Zemeckis, the director’s wife. (Each tough-talking dame has a real-world counterpart.)
The group faces off with a gaggle of SS officers who are avatars for Hogancamp’s attackers and Nicol’s abusive ex-boyfriend Kurt (Neil Jackson). These Nazis are of the won’t-stay-dead variety, something that appears to be the witchy workings of Deja Thoris (Diane Kruger), a kind of manic pixie nightmare girl who bedevils Mark in both fantasy and reality.
Zemeckis is unsurprisingly at home in the Marwen scenes, which revel in anachronisms and an aura of arrested adolescence. The decor may be Second World War, but that doesn’t prevent Hoagie’s gun-toting heroines from strutting through the town square to Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love.” Witty touches abound: Whenever a doll dies, it breaks apart at the joints with a too-gentle clack or collapses into hilariously exaggerated rigor mortis. Zemeckis also cleverly pillages several filmographies, his own included. The climactic battle sequence involves a bell tower straight out of Hitchcock’s Vertigo — a movie the estimable critic and Zemeckis proponent Dave Kehr has thematically likened to Marwen — as well as a makeshift time machine that resembles a certain 1.21 gigawatt-powered DeLorean.
The VFX don’t exist in a vacuum, however, but comment on and commingle in provocative ways with Hogancamp’s maladjusted existence. Zemeckis doesn’t treat the live-action scenes like respite or filler; he uses them to illuminate the many ways in which his protagonist’s dream life encroaches on his verisimilar terrors and trepidations.
On his abortive first visit to court, a petrified Hogancamp imagines his attackers morphing into the plastic Nazi antagonists, shooting up judge and lawyers, wreaking havoc until Hoagie appears and leads him to safety. No less distressing are the scenes in which fantasy does not intrude, as when Hogancamp confesses his love for Nicol and the camera holds rock-steady while an extremely awkward encounter plays out. Both of these sequences demonstrate the penchant of Zemeckis and his excellent cinematographer C. Kim Miles for expressive long takes that delineate character and eschew showboating.
The one weak link in the production is Carell as the real-world Hogancamp. He often overdoes his character’s savant-like tics and at worst comes close to parody. In one scene, he screams in what’s supposed to be anguish, and you can’t help thinking of Michael Scott doing his “No, God! Nooooooooooooooooo!!!” routine from The Office. As a simultaneously macho and genderqueer plastic toy on the other hand, he’s perfect — go figure.
That this half-a-flaw doesn’t completely upend the movie is testament to how Zemeckis and his collaborators generate Hogancamp’s dual worlds — art and reality, reality and art, ever-colliding, ever-blending. The story’s knotty aspects reverberate under its sentimental-cum-inspirational surface. In the guise of a glossy entertainment, Welcome to Marwen gets at some unnervingly irresolvable truths about humanity.
Production companies: Universal Pictures, DreamWorks Pictures, Perfect World Pictures, ImageMovers Productions
Cast: Steve Carell, Leslie Mann, Diane Kruger, Merritt Wever, Janelle Monae, Eiza Gonzalez, Gwendoline Christie, Leslie Zemeckis, Neil Jackson, Falk Hentschel
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Screenwriters: Robert Zemeckis, Caroline Thompson
Producers: Cherylanne Martin, Jack Rapke, Steve Starkey, Robert Zemeckis
Executive producers: Jacqueline Levine, Jeff Malmberg
Cinematographer: C. Kim Miles
Production designer: Stefan Dechant
Costume designer: Joanna Johnston
Music: Alan Silvestri
Editor: Jeremiah O’Driscoll
Casting: Scot Boland, Victoria Burrows
Rated PG-13, 116 minutes