Welcome to Marwen is a cringe-inducing drama about a man who suffered a terrible, tragic beating and reclaims his identity through art. There is a good movie to be made of this concept, but this isn’t it. Perhaps the documentary made about this story, called Marwencol, is that movie. I haven’t seen that doc unfortunately, and so I can only judge this story based on this movie and ugh, it’s not an easy sit.
Not long prior to when this story is set, Mark Hogancamp (Steve Carell), was brutally attacked outside of a bar in his small New York town. He was left in a coma and the subsequent traumas included losing his memory of anything that happened prior to the attack and losing the ability to draw, a long time passion. As we meet Mark he is indulging his fantasy world, known as Marwen, wherein he is a heroic World War 2 pilot who is rescued from the Nazis by a group of gun toting women who are mythic representations of the real women in Mark’s life.
Marwen is Mark’s at home art installation where he uses 12 inch dolls to represent himself and the women in his life. There is Roberta (Merritt Wever), a kindly hobby shop owner who helps Mark obtain his dolls and supplies, Julie (Janelle Monae), Mark’s former physical therapist, Carlalla (Eiza Gonzalez), a co-worker of Mark’s at a local bar, and Anna (Gwendoline Christie), Mark’s visiting nurse. There are also two other fantasy characters in Marwen but we will get to them as they are both troublesome.
There will soon be a new character in Marwen. Mark has just gotten a new neighbor, Nicol (Leslie Mann), who Mark is immediately smitten with. After seeing her and briefly meeting her and finding her very kind and patient, he goes to the hobby shop and buys a doll on which he projects her image. He even names the doll Nicol and begins to position her romantically with his doll avatar Hoagie. Here’s where the cringing begins and does not let up in Welcome to Marwen.
Welcome to Marwen is quite loosely based on the life story of the real Mark Hogancamp, a life that has already been rendered in a well-reviewed documentary. Much of the other details are inventions of Zemeckis and writer Caroline Thompson who might have been better advised to stick closer to the real story. The invented romantic aspirations of Mark are creepy and cringy and render him difficult to take.
The real Mark Hogancamp never had a Nicol, he named his characters and his town after his ex-wife, who was long out the picture before he was attacked and a good friend whom he had no romantic designs on. The real Mark Hogancamp, on some level, understands that he’s not in a place where romance is right for him. As portrayed in this movie, Mark is a true weirdo whose fixation on Nicol has the earmarks of creepy stalker behavior, something I am sure was not intended in this supposedly uplifting story.
I will put it to you dear reader, a strange man you’ve only just met begins to fixate on you, purchases a doll that he makes to look like you, begins to have that doll in a romance with a doll that looks like him. I haven’t mentioned that he also has a few pairs of her shoes that he likes to wear, mostly because that is arguably the least creepy thing happening here. Again, the movie doesn’t intend any of this to be creepy but the way it is crafted on screen makes it unintentionally, off-puttingly, creepy.
The movie doesn’t do much of anything to make Mark likable. Other than casting the innately likable Steve Carell, the film portrays Mark is awkward, humorless, childlike, a poor dresser, prone to violent attacks of fantasy, and a hermit. The women in his life indulge all of these qualities and reinforce them to a degree that goes beyond kindness and into the realm of fantasy where most of them only exist. The female characters in Welcome to Marwen are mostly the invention of the filmmakers and are not part of the real story as portrayed in the documentary, or so I have been told.
Speaking of fantasy characters, there is another controversial inclusion in Welcome to Marwen. Diane Kruger voices a character named Deja who is the one character in the film universe that is not based on any of the other characters in the movie. Mark describes Deja as the Belgian Witch of Marwen, a woman so deeply in love with Hoagie that she makes his other potential love interests vanish.
Deja is a supremely clumsy metaphor for addiction. She wears a bright blue glove that is the same color as the pain medication that Mark has been abusing. It’s hinted that Mark’s drinking problem, another addiction, was what drove away the wife he can only recall from photographic evidence and the fact that Mark was drunk the night he got beat up is part of his notion that he may have deserved the beating he received. By vanquishing Deja, Mark is symbolically vanquishing his addiction. If only life were so simple as defeating a doll. .
I debated whether to include a discussion of the other character in Marwen but I will mention it. In yet another creepy and tone deaf detail, Zemeckis includes a scene of Mark indulging in his pastime of watching his favorite porno actress, Suzette, who is portrayed by Zemeckis’ wife Leslie (Eww!).
Mark likes Suzette so much that he made her a doll character in Marwen and when Nicol asks about her, Mark is not hesitant about explaining her origin in yet another cringy bit of tin-eared dialogue.
It’s a shame all of this goes down this way because some of Welcome to Marwen isn’t completely terrible. The film uses some wonderful technical wizardry to bring Mark’s art to life. Mark doesn’t just play with these dolls, he poses them and takes photos of them that are genuine works of art. The film even builds to Mark’s art exhibit. As we watch Mark work his art is alive and moving around and having dialogue and it’s all rather inventive looking.
This could be a device that deepens the story and creates an artful insight into Mark’s troubled, damaged, mind but as played by all involved in Welcome to Marwen, the dolls are yet another clumsy metaphorical device. They are there to deliver exposition and give simple metaphoric representations of Mark’s mental state. It doesn’t help that Zemeckis uses the dolls to deliver yet another creepy punchline regarding Mark; he occasionally poses his female dolls topless. Baring in mind that these are dolls based on people in his life, it plays as a creepy and entirely unnecessary detail that the filmmakers seem to think is charming and funny.
From what I understand about the documentary, none of what Zemeckis puts into the movie is true of the real Mark Hogancamp. He might be a creepy pervert but from what I have read about the documentary, it appears more interested in him as an oddball character and a talented artist. The romantic plot that Zemeckis forces into the movie is a completely misguided nod to mainstream filmmaking that requires that all quirky male protagonists have a love interest, even if the character has no qualities that would attract said love interest.
To be fair, the Nicol character as played by Leslie Mann never realizes she’s a love interest until a truly hard to watch scene in which she has to let him down easy. It’s a supremely hard to watch and misguided scene that had me squirming in my seat. Mark is a character that is hard enough to take without the movie so forcefully trying to be sympathetic to his misguided ideas of romance. It’s meant to be an insight into his struggle but it all just comes off as forcefully sad.
Welcome to Marwen is a technical marvel in some ways but mostly, it’s just hard to watch. The characters are all offbeat caricatures, the dialogue is full of the kind of lazy exposition you expect from action movies not from character driven drama and while the technical wizardry is neat, it can’t make up for the many other deficiencies in the story and characters of Welcome to Marwen.