Eighteen years ago, a man named Mark Hogencamp was brutally beaten by five men outside of a bar in Kingston, New York. The assault put him in a coma for over a week and left him with permanent brain damage and little memory of his previous life. To cope, he constructed an elaborate miniature World War II-era Belgian town where he would create fantasy sequences with dolls representing himself, his friends and even his assailants, and photographed them. He called the town Marwencol and the eccentric and fascinating scene caught the attention of the art world, the media and eventually became the subject of an acclaimed 2010 documentary.
Why Hollywood and an always innovative filmmaker like Robert Zemeckis would be drawn to this inherently dramatic, emotional and fantastical story is hardly a mystery. The head-scratcher is how it ended up as such a disaster. Yes, “Welcome to Marwen ,” despite what I believe were the best of intentions, is cloying, jaw-droppingly sexist and oddly lifeless. It’s not that it’s a poorly-directed movie. It’s just stunningly ill-conceived.
Steve Carell plays Mark, and his WWII action-figure alter-ego Hoagie, who we meet first. Hoagie is handsome, assured and unflappable in wartime. A plane crash? No problem. Shoes on fire? He’ll just wear a pair of heels instead. A Nazi holding him at gunpoint? He’ll talk to him with no fear. And if he gets in over his head, no worries, a cabal of beautiful, machine-gun-toting and scantily clad women will come to save him. This is his fantasy, so they all love him of course, but he tells them to keep their distance because there’s this blue-haired Belgian witch named Deja Thoris (Diane Krueger, who is probably thankful to be hidden behind the animation) who gets jealous and kills women who get close to him. Seriously.
In the real world, however, Mark is a mess, living in a semi-permanent mobile home, popping pills like candy, and avoiding human interactions wherever he can — especially those that remind him of the assault, which is why he’s doing everything he can to get out of attending the sentencing hearing for his attackers despite his lawyer’s pleas.
His PTSD manifests in his fantasy world. When he feels attacked, suddenly there’s machine gun fire being sprayed throughout the bar in Marwen. It’s also the place where he can always get the girl, if he so chooses. He can also construct whatever kind of girl he wants, whether it’s a young blond milkmaid or a replica of the woman, Nicol (an uncomfortable-looking Leslie Mann), who has just moved into the house across from him.
“Welcome to Marwen,” co-written by Zemeckis and Caroline Thompson (“Edward Scissorhands”) wants to be both childlike and adult in ways that the film is not equipped to examine in any sort of serious way, making the whole thing creepy and discomforting.
Mark fetishizes every woman in his life who is kind to him and puts her in Marwen: His physical therapist (Janelle Monae), his care taker, Anna (Gwendoline Christie), the woman who works at the toy store where he buys the dolls, Roberta (Merritt Wever), a cook at a local bar, Caralala (Eiza Gonzalez) and, I believe, his favorite adult film star, Suzette, played by the director’s wife, Leslie Zemeckis. It’s one sci-fi twist away from being a full on “Black Mirror” episode, and poor Nicol, who quickly becomes his new obsession, bears the brunt of these unwelcome affections.
The movie tells us he loves the essence of women (and says this is why he likes wearing and collecting high heels). He wishes they could run the world, he says, but it doesn’t sound sincere. You’ll get whiplash trying to reconcile how the movie is consistently trying to tell you it’s feminist while also so blatantly objectifying every woman in sight.
The animation is really something stunning, however. It doesn’t look too digital or too uncanny valley. If only the movie could have been as evolved. Zemeckis, it seems, was trying to recreate a sort of “Forrest Gump” folk tale out of “Marwen,” which simply doesn’t work anymore the way it might have 24 years ago. This is a complex man and artist worthy of a complex story, not a would-be-feel-good farce.
“Welcome to Marwen,” a Universal Pictures release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for “for sequences of fantasy violence, some disturbing images, brief suggestive content, thematic material and language.” Running time: 116 minutes. One and a half stars out of four.