In 2010, a documentary called Marwencol chronicled the life and artwork of Mark Hogancamp, an artist from upstate New York who was beaten within an inch of his life because of some sexual personality differences. Unable to draw after his injuries, he instead created a fictional miniature town in his yard, populated by dolls that he would photograph to deal with different aspects of his life and recovery. Now we have Welcome to Marwen, a fictionalized account of Hogancamp’s story, based upon that documentary, starring Steve Carell and Leslie Mann, and directed by Robert Zemeckis.
This isn’t the first time a documentary has been given a fictional adaptation. The great Werner Herzog adapted his own doc, 1997’s Little Dieter Needs to Fly, into the 2006 Vietnam war drama Rescue Dawn starring Christian Bale. Well, as much as I love Zemeckis, Werner Herzog he is not. This adaptation is highly sanitized (despite the R-rating for language) and schmaltzy, which is his wheelhouse. But apart from the visual effects, there’s not much to recommend.
The film begins with a lively CGI action sequence, where Hogancamp’s action figure avatar, Cap’n Hogie, is shot down over Belgium during World War II. Barefoot due to the engine fire in his plane burning off his shoes, Hogie wanders the countryside until he finds an overturned German car. Inside is a suitcase with women’s high heels inside. Deciding that they’re better than nothing, G.I. Carell slips them on and finds them to be quite comfortable. He is then ambushed by Nazis who decide to kill him for wearing women’s shoes. Before they can deal the death blow, Hogie is saved by the “Women of Marwen,” led by Wendy (Stefanie von Pfetten).
It is at this point that we shift to the real world, with the “real” Hogancamp (Carell) taking photographs of the dolls before storing “Wendy” in his R.I.P. box, never to be used again. All of the women in Marwen are based on women in Hogancamp’s life. Wendy is a former waitress at the bar where Hogancamp was assaulted, and she was the one who found his beaten body and called for help. She has moved away and gotten married, so she is no longer in Hogancamp’s life, and therefore, no longer in Cap’n Hogie’s. In the world of Marwen, whenever a woman gets too close to Hogie, she is eventually removed from his life by an evil witch named Deja Thoris, voiced by Diane Kruger, who zaps them 15 million years into the future.
As a real-life art show debut draws near for Hogancamp, a new neighbor moves in across the street, a woman named Nicol – it becomes almost a plot point that her name contains no “e” at the end – played by Leslie Mann. She becomes fascinated with Marwen, and befriends Mark, earning herself a doll in the process. She also has a dickish ex-boyfriend named Kurt (Neil Jackson), who bears a striking resemblance to the new Nazi doll in the town’s hobby shop, Major Kurt Meyer. Like Kurt, the Nazi soldiers in Marwen are representatives of Mark’s antagonists, specifically the five men who beat him. Those men have been convicted of a hate crime, and Mark is encouraged by his lawyer to attend the sentencing hearing as a form of closure.
The pieces are all there for a very compelling story of friendship and the power of art in healing. Unfortunately, the execution is a bit scattershot. The visual effects of the dolls in Marwen are spectacular, and very much worthy of the film being shortlisted in the Visual Effects category. Further, there are triggers for Mark’s PTSD that hurl him into panic situations where reality blurs with Marwen, and Cap’n Hogie himself has to protect him. It’s one of the most unique depictions of PTSD I’ve ever seen. But apart from that, the rest of the film kind of falls apart.
Take for instance the actual women of Marwen. The film is advertised as all of these women having deep significance to Mark, but apart from Nicol and Roberta (Merritt Wever from Nurse Jackie), the hobby store worker who sells Mark his dolls and who has a clear crush on him, all of the women have an ancillary connection at best and only get one scene in live action. Janelle Monáe is shown in every trailer as an injured veteran helping Mark with his rehab, but that’s her only scene as Julie, though she plays a large role in Marwen as the leader of Mark’s harem pre-Nicol. The take-no-prisoners reformed Russian spy Anna (Gwendoline Christie) is Mark’s monthly visiting caregiver. Mexican Carlala (Eiza González) is Mark’s casual coworker at the bar, though she at least gets a few lines of dialogue. French femme fatale Suzette is based on Mark’s favorite “actress,” a fictional porn star named Suzette St. Sweet, who plays a busty French maid in a worn out VHS tape. Suzette is voiced by Zemeckis’ wife Leslie, no word on if she’s also the porn star. Hell, there’s a new girl named Elsa (Siobhan Williams), a Belgian milkmaid, who gets “killed” in Marwen immediately after she’s introduced, with no explanation whatsoever as to how she fits in Mark’s world.
Sadly, the subplots are also clumsily handled. Mark makes two trips to court to give a statement before the men who assaulted him are sentenced. We never actually get a resolution to that. Sure he stands there and gives a semi-inspirational speech while Alan Silvestri’s score crescendos to the point of prestige, but it’s all sound and fury signifying nothing. At one point Mark, who has developed a rich romance for Hogie and Nicol in doll form, actually proposes to Nicol in real life, even though there’s nothing to indicate romantic interest. They’ve never even gone on a date. Even the looming threat of Kurt is quickly doused once the doll form is conceived. He briefly attempts to victimize Mark in some misguided macho attempt to make himself look better in Nicol’s eyes, and then he’s never seen again.
It’s a shame, really, because this film had a lot of potential, but instead Zemeckis opts for convenient handwaves and mawkishness rather than a deeper, nuanced exploration of Mark’s literal world-building. Even the final resolution of Deja’s role in everything seems like a tossed off “Afterschool Special” cliché. There’s so much good stuff in the world of Marwen that ultimately makes it so that Zemeckis ignores the real-world implications of all of this, and in doing so cheapens the whole experience.
If nothing else, though, I definitely want to see the Marwencol documentary now.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Do you play with dolls? Who wouldn’t love a D-cup version of Leslie Mann in their lives? Let me know!