Welcome to Marwen is an inferior telling of a fascinating story
With Welcome to Marwen we once again find filmmaker Robert Zemeckis chasing the marriage of story and cutting edge film technology. And while the snazzy effects on display are certainly neat, they’re certainly not enough of a game changer to carry what is a bland, predictable story. Oddly enough, the true story that this film is based on is anything but bland, but somehow the Hollywoodization of it (complete with additional explosions) feels sleepy and uninspired.
Back in 2010, a filmmaker named Jeff Malmberg made an independent documentary called Marwencol. It told the tale of Mark Hogancamp, an illustrator who, after being beaten nearly to death outside of a bar, found himself robbed of every memory he ever had. Old photos indicate that he was once married, and the possessions in his now unfamiliar home hint at a life worth examining. Short of that, all Mark has to go on is what he feels inside. One way this manifests is through the expansive diorama Mark has built in his back yard. It’s a detailed miniature of a near-vacant Belgian town in the middle of WWII, and it’s where Hogie, Mark’s doll-sized analog, staves off the constant Nazi threat with a ragtag team of townswomen.
Mark finds therapy in creating and photographing stories which occur in the miniature town of Marwencol, and these photographs have gained international acclaim. If you haven’t seen them, tap google. You will be impressed. And if you haven’t seen Marwencol, go out of your way to catch it. It’s one of the most touching stories you’ll ever see. The way it speaks so curiously about the effect of imagination and creativity on mental health is essential. It even touches upon an alternative lifestyle that doesn’t often see proper representation in mainstream media. It’s a stunner.
Then comes Welcome to Marwen, the narrative film based on Hogancamp’s story. This marks the second time Zemeckis has adapted a successful documentary to a narrative feature. His previous effort was The Walk, which turned out to be a peppy, minor picture, capped off with one of the most stunning set pieces ever achieved in IMAX 3D. It’s sort of a pointless movie, given that Man on Wire was already breathtaking enough, but it works as a fun companion piece. Unfortunately, Welcome to Marwen doesn’t have a big climax or a Joseph Gordon Levitt to hang its story on, and as a result, we get a film so inferior to its source material that it just feels pointless.
What makes this harder to like is the fact that without the foreknowledge of the documentary, the structure of Welcome to Marwen feels like it may be a bit cryptic. At the same time, knowing the whole story already makes the film’s method of information release feel perfunctory. Yes, there are elements in the latter film which serve broad drama tastes (a love interest, a struggle with addiction, a sentencing hearing), that simply aren’t in the documentary. While I can’t speak to whether or not these elements are genuine to real life, they certainly feel like they were tacked on. I don’t wish to spoil the aforementioned alternative lifestyle portion of the material, as I feel that both films want it to be revealed in pace with their respective stories, but I will say that the two characterizations of it are different enough that it feels like a missed opportunity for Zemeckis’ film.
In Welcome to Marwen, Mark (Steve Carell) regularly loses himself in his miniatures, and it’s depicted as a fully cinematic fantasy world. The players are all dolls, as indicated by their plasticky skin, bendable limbs, and artificial clothing. It’s a great effect, pushed past the uncanny valley by a new motion capture technique, but it’s not really that special. I can see that motion capture tech has gotten better (just look at Zemeckis’ own The Polar Express for comparison), but this is a step forward, not a leap. And really, it’s not as prominently featured in the film as it could be. The bulk of the film takes place in the real world. The bland real world.
One could argue that this is the point. That the mundanity of life is being juxtaposed against the fantasy of Mark’s models, but I just don’t think that’s the case here. Why? Because the doll scenes are pretty bland too. Much like the Matt Damon bomb Downsizing, this film sets up the notion of a miniature world and just leaves it at that. Ho hum. There is so much opportunity for creativity and imagination, and Welcome to Marwen barely scratches the surface.
There are a few moments of life, however. Some light humor here, a clever visual gag there. While I can’t quite figure what the film is trying to say expressly (there’s an odd anti-medication streak that I’m having trouble with), but the call for empathy does ultimately emerge, and it feels honest.
Carell is pretty good, given the material he’s working with. I’m still having a hard time shaking the stereotypes I have about him though. Like, when he screams in agony for the sake of drama, I still fully expect him to yell “Kelly Clarkson!” He’s just so funny that I have a bit of trouble buying the drama. This is my fault, not his, but the script isn’t doing him any favors. The real world Mark, as depicted in Marwencol, is odd in a way that might be off-putting to some, but even when he’s at his most fetishistic with his dolls, it doesn’t feel creepy. Carell’s take on Mark often does. I don’t know why.
Leslie Mann is Nicol (no e), the pretty neighbor with whom Mark develops a friendship. Mann is charming even though she isn’t given much to do. In fact, almost none of the women in this are given anything to do. Gwendoline Christie, Janelle Monáe, Diane Kruger, Eiza González, and Merritt Wever play the other women in Mark’s life, only the last of which gets more than just a few minutes of screen time. None are developed, and since this is told from Mark’s point of view, it makes him feel almost predatory to have these women depicted as little more than arm candy for his fantasy. I’m not typically sensitive to this type of thing, but I felt it here, even though it’s clear that it wasn’t intentional.
Oh, and there’s a third act nostalgia grab that not only made the dormant Zemeckis fan in me cringe, but it also served to remove one of Mark Hogancamp’s cooler designs from the film. If you see Marwencol, you’ll know what I’m talking about. In fact, that’s where I’m going to land on this: if this story interests you, see Marwencol. Whether you want to see Welcome to Marwen is up to you.
Welcome to Marwen opens in Philly theaters today.