The human mind is a fragile construct, a maze of nerves and tissue that controls every tiny aspect of our bodies and holds the memories we accrue over a lifetime of experiences. Losing those memories, and the basic abilities to function, after trauma would have to be one of the most harrowing things a person can go through.
That is exactly what happened to Mark Hogancamp, a man from upstate New York. On April 8, 2000, five men beat him nearly to death after he told them he was a cross-dresser. He spent nine days in a coma and 40 days in a hospital, emerging with brain damage that left him little memory of his previous life.
Hogancamp brought himself back to some semblance of sanity by creating a 1/6 scale model of a World War II-era Belgian town he named Marwencol. He filled the town with dolls, depicting himself, his friends, and even his attackers. He then created elaborate fantasies in which his doll, nicknamed “Hogie,” was an American fighter pilot and an array of female friends were a ruthless fighting force providing him backup in battles against Nazi dolls, representing the men who brutalized him.
After setting up precisely positioned scenarios, Hogancamp photographs them, resulting in stunningly detailed adventures that have become the focus of galleries worldwide, a terrific coffee-table book and a stunning 2010 documentary called “Marwencol.”
Now his unlikely story is the focus of a new narrative feature film called “Welcome to Marwen,” in which Oscar-nominated actor Steve Carell plays Hogancamp amid a big-budget effects extravaganza helmed by the visionary director Robert Zemeckis (“Forrest Gump,” “Back to the Future”).
That dynamic duo should have been able to craft a superb movie that would compete strongly for this year’s Academy Awards. Unfortunately, their take on Hogancamp’s story has resulted in a disappointing failure: a loud, tonally jarring, emotionally manipulative and poorly paced exercise in mediocrity that has little of the magic found in his photographs.
The film opens with Hogancamp’s heroic alter ego Hogie on a daring run in his bomber, as it is about to crash-land in a forest. What should be a sequence of slam-bang excitement is so artificially rendered that it’s hard for viewers to absorb themselves, and when the plane crashes and we see Hogancamp in the real world photographing the results, a major qualitative problem presents itself.
From those opening moments throughout the rest of the film, Zemeckis and his normally ace co-screenwriter Caroline Thompson (“Edward Scissorhands,” “The Nightmare Before Christmas”) have utterly slack pacing in the real-world scenes that ruins any sense of magic momentum that might come across in the fantasy sequences.
They also have incredibly heavy-handed expository dialogue throughout that wouldn’t have passed muster in a Screenwriting 101 class at a community college.
Hogancamp struggles in his relations with other people, but he has a particularly hard time dealing with the women in his life. One is a co-worker at the bar in which he was beaten, another runs the hobby shop where he purchases all his dolls and art supplies, yet another is the physical therapist who taught him to walk again, after his beating resulted in the amputation of his leg.
But there are two other women whose dolls come to prominence in the film’s storyline: one representing the cute, sweet woman named Nicol (Leslie Mann) who moves in across the street after escaping an abusive boyfriend, and the other a fantasy figure he calls Deja, whom he believes is a witch sent to interfere and ruin any and all attempts at relationships.
As he tries to forge a relationship with Nicol, Mark also has to face the impending court date in which his attorney has asked him to appear and testify against his attackers to ensure their prison sentences are severe — yet he is so traumatized he may not be able to appear at all.
“Welcome to Marwen” wears its heart on its sleeve, and clearly wants to be a heartwarming classic along the lines of Zemeckis’ “Forrest Gump.” But with its storytelling and stylistic approaches a mess, it is nearly impossible to take seriously.
Quietly emotional real-world moments give way to noisy, scream-filled sequences of Nazi attacks made by dolls, and the sight of Carell in an array of high heels as he starts to confidently embrace his desire to explore his feminine side is truly bizarre to behold throughout.
“Marwen” comes close to being bad enough to laugh at, without quite reaching that ignoble status. The doll effects are admittedly stunning, with the film on the Academy’s shortlist of the 10 movies of 2018 that are eligible for a Best Visual Effects nomination.
But add in a cloyingly sappy score, poor writing, a hysterical (in all the wrong ways) performance by Carell and a near-complete lack of control by Zemeckis, and you’ll be looking to leave “Marwen” as quickly as possible.
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