There is little that tugs more insistently at my heartstrings, cinematically at least, than a film that genuinely means well and falls short. And so it is with WELCOME TO MARWEN, a showcase of CGI and of Steve Carrell’s dramatic chops, but of little else.
The story is based on the life of Mark Hogencamp, an artist who was savagely beaten and left for dead after boasting that he liked wearing women’s shoes to the wrong group of people in his favorite bar. Left with no personal memories, barely able to write is name, and incapacitating PTSD from the beating, he worked through his trauma by creating the world of Marwen, a miniature World War II-era Belgian village that he has populated with elaborately customized dolls, in the backyard and living room of his mobile home. There his alter ego, Cap’n Hogie, does battle with un-killable Nazis supported by his squadron of buxom female warriors who are not so immortal. There’s also a Belgian witch, Deja Thoris (Diane Kruger) madly in love with Hogie who makes anyone who gets too close to him, literally or figuratively, disappear. The photographs he takes of their exploits garner him acclaim from the art world, but does nothing to dispel the emotional issues that haunt his dreams and plague his waking hours.
The visual aspects of the film are impressive. Carrell, Kruger, Leslie Mann, Janelle Monáe, Merritt Wever, Eiza González, and the other assorted actors are rendered nicely into recognizable doll facsimiles of the originals and dynamically animated. Carell is impressive, too, suffering mightily, but never hammily, onscreen with Marks’s demons in the real and the fantasy world. That he’s also a very talented voice actor adds to the verisimilitude of Hogie’s anguish when those close to him die, or when he dares not steal a kiss with Nicol (Mann) the Marwen version of the sweet beauty across the street that he adds to his platoon via a glamor doll customized with stiletto heels and regimental mini-skirt. When Mark declares his feelings for the real Nicol, it is a moment of perfect poignancy as Carrell becomes as immobile as any of his doll props.
It’s the script that fails all concerned. What should be reality and fantasy commenting on each other and forming a greater quintessence instead forms a jarring divergence that is repetitive rather than illuminating. The high points of drama as Mark confronts Deja Thoris, or decides to confront his attackers in court, fall resoundingly flat with only the occasional small moments, like the ci-mentioned one with Nicol, or the conversation at cross-purposes with Roberta (Wever), the clerk at the store where Mark buys his dolls who pines for him. The erotic fetishizing depicted of spike heels being placed lovingly on doll feet, I cannot comment upon.
Instead of the moving, perhaps uplifting film WELCOME TO MARWEN meant to be, it’s a trudge through familiar tropes and a call-out to director Robert Zemeckis’ Back to the Future trilogy. Seriously. Instead of this, seek out MARWENCOL, the documentary about Mark that is just about perfect.