Whenever a studio’s marketing department resorts to commercials calling a film “the year’s most original movie,” you know they don’t quite know how to sell it. Such is the case with Oscar-winning director Robert Zemeckis’ Welcome to Marwen, an odd duck of a movie about a unique human being named Mark Hogancamp. While I am throwing the word “odd” around here, let me add I also found it oddly affecting in ways that are hard to describe.
You can see why Zemeckis (Forrest Gump, Back to the Future, Castaway) might have been attracted to this project. Before returning to more traditional narrative films like Flight and The Walk (both excellent), he spent about 12 years of his career trying to entice audiences to embrace his performance-capture movies (The Polar Express, Beowulf, A Christmas Carol), a grand experiment in which actors work in tights with dots in front of greenscreens to come off as a somewhat photo-real animated facsimile of themselves. In sort of a compromise with his own creative instincts, he gets to blend the live-action form he was known for with the performance-capture process he has been so fond of, and that becomes Welcome to Marwen, perhaps the strangest, if not “most original,” film to come from a major studio this year.
For taking this kind of swing I applaud him even if many critics and audiences won’t quite know what to make of Hogancamp’s story. Of course, what makes it intriguing is that it is a 100% true tale and in fact was the subject of Jeff Malmberg’s 2010 documentary Marwencol. I confess not to having seen the docu, so I approached this take with fresh eyes, and in this version it is a tonally uneven but harrowing and ultimately hopeful story indeed. As a holiday entry it is likely to get buried at the box office, but it is worth finding if you are looking for something, yes, “original” in a crop of sequels and superhero fare on display this season. You either go with this man’s story or you don’t.
Hogancamp (Steve Carell, giving it all he’s got) had a very different kind of life, career and onetime marriage before a drunken outburst in a bar, where he admitted to a guy that he enjoyed wearing women’s heels about town, led to a horrific incident upon leaving that bar when the guy summoned his other homophobic friends and beat Hogancamp to a bloody pulp in a hate crime, leaving him for dead in the middle of the road. A woman saves him and gets him to the hospital, where he went through months of recovery but lost his memory. Eventually getting back to some semblance of a life, he pours the negative and ugliness of this crime into art by creating the mythical Belgian town of Marwen in World War II, populated by life-sized dolls he invents including his alter ego Captain Hogie, a WWII fighter pilot chased by Nazis and embraced by a variety of women. This is where the performance capture comes in as Carell and the other actors are transformed into these doll-like figures.
Zemeckis and Caroline Thompson’s screenplay darts back and forth between the fantasy world Mark creates with the current facts of his life in the real world post-attack. His plight is embraced by a number of women including Leslie Mann, as Nicol, a new neighbor he falls for; Merritt Wever as Roberta, who runs the hobby store where he shops for materials to use for Marwen; Eiza Gonzalez as Carlala, a co-worker; and others including Janelle Monáe as GI Julie and Leslie Zemeckis as Suzette. They all turn up also as the women of Marwen, and that includes Diane Kruger who is really off the wall as Deja Thoris.
It is an art installation in real life that Hogancamp photographs and creates gallery shows around. Zemeckis has now made this hobby and art show into one half of this movie, a private fantasy world up on the big screen. The tone is challenging as the story darts back and forth and can get pretty dark, but the actors give it their all to be sure. It is a game try, and certainly a unique story ultimately about a man who did not let the most horrific attack on his humanity make him give up on life when he might have had every right to do just that. Instead, he turned it into art.
Producers are Zemeckis Jack Rapke, Steve Starkey,and Cherylanne Martin. Universal puts it into release today. Check out my video review above which features scenes from the film.
Do you plan to see Welcome to Marwen? Let us know what you think.