Eighteen years ago, a man named Mark Hogancamp was attacked and severely beaten within an inch of his life. He had been drinking. While at the bar he naively passed a remark about his cross-dressing habits. Five men were nearby and heard him. Once outside, they beat Mark so brutally, the man remained in a coma for nine days. When he finally awoke, Mark was left with little memory of his previous life. The men had beaten all recollections out of him. They had stolen his life. He left the hospital thirty-one days later, discharged with brain damage.
Once back on his feet, Mark had a vague memory of having been somewhat artistic. By all reports, he used to draw. But not much else came to mind. Because of an inability to pay for therapy, Mark created his own form of therapeutic help. He filled the void in his mind with fantasy. He did this by building a fictional town in World War II Belgium, populated by dolls. Each doll represented either himself or those he had met since leaving the hospital. His attackers were represented by German Nazis. The town was called Marwencol, a combination of three names important to him; Mark, Wendy, and Colleen.
Unable to draw any longer, Mark took photographs instead. It was the pictures of his miniature town and its plastic occupants that caught the attention of another photographer, David Naugle. From there, Mark’s work was chronicled in a Brooklyn arts and culture magazine and became the basis of a 2010 documentary, Marwencol.
That’s the real story.
Welcome to Marwen is director Robert Zemeckis’ dramatization of Mark’s tale, and its setup keeps close to the facts. But being a Zemeckis production and co-written by him with Caroline Thompson (The Nightmare Before Christmas, Edward Scissorhands) Welcome to Marwen centers heavily on some very clever fantasy elements; the dolls of that Belgium town are Mark Hogancamp’s world. To him (and, as a result, to us) they are all very real.
Opening in black and white, we’re flying the skies above somewhere over Belgium. It’s the second world war, and Captain Hogie is under attack. At first glance, all seems real. Then very quickly, a second glance tells you there’s something artificial about the whole thing, even though the air blasts look and sound real, and those flames on the plane’s wing are definitely authentic. Then the plane crashes. Captain Hogie unbuckles himself and jumps out of the cockpit before the whole things blows. And it’s then that you see what he really is. A doll, an Action Man G.I. Joe-like figure that has leapt from the imagination of its maker Mark Hogancamp (Steve Carell) and found itself in the middle of a death-defying adventure. “Three years,” Hogancamp murmurs to himself as he picks the doll up. “Time flies when you’re having fun, right, Hogie?”
The film gives us glimpses of what happened to the man through a series of newspaper clippings that Hogancamp keeps in a scrapbook. Headlines like ‘Assault Victim Leaves Hospital,’ and ‘Victim In Critical Condition’ litter the pages. Later, a bartender will fill in some of the details when telling a customer that “Five of them jumped him.” With a nod of his head to the outside, he adds, “Right there in the middle of the road.”
The areas you expect to work in a Zemeckis movie are striking. The fantasy sequences that transform from the real world into CGI animation then back again are impressive. The fictional town where Captain Hogie lives is protected by a group of machine gun-wielding female dolls that strut around in stilettos, a style that won’t be invented until 1954, but in Hogancamp’s therapeutic town of Marwen, anything goes, including his fetish for high heels.
Hogancamp doesn’t see his interest in collecting and often wearing high heels as a fetish. As he openly explains to his new neighbor Nicol (a pleasant Leslie Mann) when revealing his collection consisting of 287 pairs of women’s shoes, “They connect me to the essence of dames,” adding, “And I love dames.”
Plus, there’s a great use of music. One of the elements of his beating that Hogancamp can vaguely remember is the music on the jukebox at the bar. So, when the man checks the pictures he’s taken of the new redhead doll named after his neighbor, The Flamingos’ I Only Have Eyes For You plays in his head. And while developing a crush on Nicol and taking a series of shots of Hogie falling in love with the redhead, the opening bars of Joni Mitchell’s Help Me begins. The best and most fun of all is the moment when all of Hogancamp’s gun-toting women strut in unison, their heels clicking on the pavement adding extra percussion to Robert Palmer’s Addicted to Love.
But the individual elements fail to add up to a satisfying whole. What seems like a promising and threatening subplot concerning a stalking boyfriend (Matt O’Leary) to Leslie Mann’s neighborly Nicol goes nowhere in the real world, even though it inspires Hogancamp to cast him as a Nazi Lieutenant in his fantasy. And the film’s biggest conflict, a will-he/won’t-he go to court to witness the sentencing of those five wretches who beat him, fades without a dramatically satisfying conclusion. It doesn’t give the payoff you’re looking for.
Steve Carrell’s affecting portrayal is of a man who carries the look of someone so desperately wanting to be loved while looking for answers to questions revolving around his missing memory. But the film falls short on its story. Dramatically, what we see doesn’t feel enough. At the fade out you’re asking, And?
MPAA rating: PG-13 Length: 116 Minutes