By: Steve Pulaski
Moreso consistently entertaining than consistently good, and more effective as a broad-reaching, medium-budget spectacle than a complex, humanistic story, Welcome to Marwen has director Robert Zemeckis (the Back to the Future trilogy, Forrest Gump) flexing his keen eye for visual splendor alongside a story that could've probably used more humans and less dolls. For what it does, however, the film examines both the need and the detriment of escapism in a person's life, and who better to bring that duality to life than Steve Carell with another memorable performance?
Based on the acclaimed 2010 documentary Marwencol, the film revolves around Mark Hogancamp (Carell), a man who, in the early aughts, was so savagely beaten by five men outside a bar he was left without most of his memory of the event and everything prior. An accomplished comics illustrator, Mark finds solace in constructing large models in his yard, using action figures to symbolize the main individuals in his life that care so much about him. Mark's world is known as "Marwen," a portmanteau of "Mark" and "Wendy," the former love of his life. In Marwen — which is portrayed as a town in Belgium during World War II — Mark is a G.I. Joe-like figure known as "Captain Hogie," a well-respected hero defended and by the heroic "Women of Marwen:" Roberta (Merritt Wever), a friend of Mark's who works at the local hobby shop, Julie (R&B sensation Janelle Monáe), his physical therapist, Caralala (Eiza González), his coworker at the local tavern, Anna (Gwendoline Christie), his intense Russian caretaker, and Suzette (Leslie Zemeckis), his favorite actress.
When a sweet red-head named Nicol (Leslie Mann) moves across the street, Mark is smitten enough with her to head down to Roberta's store and buy a red-haired "Glamonista" doll, which he will proceed to stylize and make-up to look like Nicol and incorporate her in his fantastical world. The primary villains of Marwen that challenge Hogie and the ladies' ability to live peacefully are both a group of Nazi thugs, inspired by the men who attacked Mark, and Deja Thoris (Diane Kruger), a wicked Belgian Witch that violently kills any woman who tries to get close to him. Mark's relationship with the Women of Marwen isn't a sexual one, for he looks up to them for their ability to be kind-hearted to him. The closest he ever gets to the women is via their heels, one of the reasons Mark took a beating that fateful August day.
Looming over Mark is a fast-approaching sentencing date for his attackers, and his lawyer (Conrad Coates) repeatedly tries to get in touch with him as his presence and subsequent statement is integral to assure maximum possible sentencing. Mark is unsure he wants to go, despite the imperative nature of the situation and encouragement from Roberta. He is content playing with and photographing his dolls. His world is much safer and more coherent than that of the outside.
A good half of the movie is dominated by bringing Marwen to life, and Zemeckis and his always astute team of visual effects artists do a noble job of doing so, even with a budget smaller than what they're used to. The filmmakers don't devote a great deal of time to showing Mark's careful manipulation of the action figures, ala stop-motion, but rather bring them to life before our eyes through captivating vignettes that show black-and-white heroism — something in which Mark would clearly still like to believe. As thematically crowded as these sequences are, including elements of love, adventure, and right-and-wrong, Zemeckis brings his usual emphasis on spectacle, and because of the flexibility of action figures and CG-animation, he's allowed to position the characters any way he wants. This leads to some imaginative moments, such as when the Women of Marwen confidently approach a church, Molotov cocktails in hand, where Nazis have kidnapped and tortured Hogie, and let loose in the knick of time.
It's the humanist elements that Zemeckis and co-writer Caroline Thompson (A Nightmare Before Christmas) somewhat botch as a result of the commitment to visual wonderment. For instance, Mark's personal justification for his fixation with women's shoes is badly mishandled, as he fails to demystify what he means by shoes containing the "essence of a woman." Anyone familiar withMarwencol (having never seen the documentary, I'm solely working off of my familiarity with the story of Hogencamp) will know that, like dresses or gowns, Hogancamp admires the shoes of a lady for their ability often to showcase their personality and style, all while elegantly complimenting their attire. It's an anecdote that isn't terribly challenging to comprehend, but because it's odd and fetishistic, of course it's going to be posited in an illicit way.
Furthermore, Zemeckis and Thompson aren't compelled to look at the fractured mental state of Mark, which is fine given the film keeps its mini-action setpieces the focal point. Judging by reviews, Marwencol did that pretty effectively, so it remains questionable whether or not we needed a dramatization of such by way of Hollywood conventions. Think of it this way: had the writers attempted to tackle the subject and woefully failed, we'd have a problematic doozy on our hands liable to feed the daily outrage machine of our present-day media. The fact that Zemeckis and Thompson retain their sights on the world of Marwen and seek to bring that to the big screen — and largely succeed — their move keeps the overall film from deterring into potentially catastrophic territory. I'd rather have a film that wants to be entertaining and simply tries to live reach that goal rather than one that gets sidetracked by mawkish moments, which serve as lulls in between action figures shooting in every direction.
Welcome to Marwen is still all over the place tonally, but a variety of fun and flavorful sequences coupled with predictably strong performances from Carell and Mann do their best to buff out the dents and imperfections in the paint. Zemeckis creates a film that might not know exactly what it is, but knows enough about itself and its strengths to play to them rather than to masquerade as something it isn't. That identity and self-awareness ultimately works to its advantage.