FILM REVIEW – WELCOME TO MARWEN. With Steve Carell, Leslie Mann, Diane Kruger, Gwendoline Christie, Janelle Monáe. Written by Caroline Thompson, Robert Zemeckis. Directed by Robert Zemeckis. Rated PG-13 for sequences of fantasy violence, some disturbing images, brief suggestive content, thematic material and language. 116 minutes.
When it comes to depicting mental illness, Hollywood usually drops the ball. All too often, people with such illnesses are turned into caricatures from the homicidal maniacs that are a horror film staple to the “holy fools” whose difficulties somehow grant them greater insights into the world. When it comes to treatment, it gets even worse, in which those who are in some way “cured” experience some sort of epiphany by confronting a fear or dislodging a long-buried memory.
Thus Robert Zemeckis, whose extensive credits include “Forrest Gump,” was arguably the worst choice for director of WELCOME TO MARWEN. As with “Gump,” he goes for the “holy fool” model and puts his real focus on the special effects. Inspired by the 2010 documentary “Marwencol,” it tells the story of Mark Hogancamp, victim of a brutal beating that robbed him of his memory and left him barely able to sign his name. He an illustrator in his prior life, and like the audience, he also knows very little about his prior life.
What Hogancamp did – and what attracted Zemeckis – was find a new way to express himself artistically. He did this by building a miniature village called Marwencol, set during World War II, populating it with lifelike dolls, and then photographing their “lives.” In Zemeckis’s version, Hogancamp imagines himself in the world of his dolls and we see an eerily lifelike animated Hogancamp, dressed as an aviator, interacting with the heroines of the village, all women based on women in his life. However, this is no “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” (another Zemeckis film). While the effects are expertly done, what we see are shootouts with Nazis (based on the men about to be sentenced for the attack on Hogancamp).
The two women who figure most prominently here are his new neighbor Nicol (Leslie Mann), for whom he develops feelings that may have more to do with his fantasy world than real life, and Deja Thoris (Diane Kruger), who is some sort of witch in the village and, oddly, has the same name as the title character in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ “Princess of Mars.” As Hogancamp has to face confronting his attackers at their sentencing hearing, the film’s solution is for his interaction with the women to suddenly allow him to separate fantasy from reality.
Carell’s performance is sensitive, but it lacks the iconic nature of Tom Hanks’s turn as Gump, and while the animated tricks can be impressive, they remain tricks instead of drawing us more deeply into the story. The movie wants us to see this story as one of personal triumph over adversity, but because we’re kept at arm’s length from Hogancamp, the “triumph” is that he becomes admired for his photographs of his fantasy doll world. There’s a suggestion that he is now better adjusted, which allows them to provide for a happy ending.
The unspoken message of “Welcome To Marwen” seems to be that we’re lucky that Hogancamp was brutalized and nearly died because, as a result, he’s now making imaginative art. It’s precisely that mistaken priority that leaves viewers musing over the animated effects rather the fate of the real-life person.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His new novel, Father of the Bride of Frankenstein, will be released in January. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.