Based on a true story, Welcome to Marwen is about the artist Mark Hogancamp (Steve Carell), who years before received a severe gang beating for his predilection for wearing women’s shoes. He would suffer from severe amnesia and physical trauma. Making matters worse, the event also took away his livelihood as a renowned World War II illustrator. Hogencamp would take up photography as his new art form. His photography consists of 1:6 scale articulated ”Barbie”-like figures posed in a made-up town in Belgium called Marwen during the time of World War II.
Mark’s photography consists of still shots on film (not digital) and depicts the story of Captain Hogie. Director Robert Zemeckis brings this fictional story to life through photorealistic animation of the miniature figures. The lead character Captain Hogie represents a heroic version of Mark, and his all-female crew represents the women in his life who supported him after the attack.
Meanwhile, in the real world, Mark lives his life as a recluse, rarely ever going outside, essentially becoming agoraphobic, sheltering himself from the outside world. Mark’s ability to survive comes with help from friends and supporters in the local community, including Anna (Gwendoline Christie), who brings him food and helps with managing the house; Roberta (Merritt Wever), who runs the model stores and helps Hogencamp buy supplies for his photographs; Carlala (Eiza Gonzalez), his confident co-worker at the Avalanche Roadhouse diner; and Janelle Monáe, who helped Mark in rehab to walk again. Things turn for the “better” when Nicol (Leslie Mann) moves across the street from him, and Mark becomes instantly infatuated with her. What could go wrong?
“…Captain Hogie represents a heroic version of Mark, and his all-female crew represents the women in his life who supported him after the attack.”
While all this is good, the main story is Hogencamp’s struggle to face the men, who savagely beat him. These men have already been found guilty, but Hogencamp needs to be there to tell his story for sentencing. But clearly, that is literally the last thing he wants to do, and he chooses avoidance to solve the problem.
Steve Carell was the logical choice to play Hogencamp. For a comedian, he’s got being vulnerable and coming off as likable down solid. His performance is reminiscent of the 40 Year Old Virgin, but with greater depth and a more serious subject. It’s such a difficult role pulled off flawlessly. Any misstep by Carell could throw audiences out of the story and he holds it together.
The real question about Welcome To Marwen is whether it’s odd story and childish animated segments has broad appeal to the average movie-goer. One truth about film criticism that I’ve discovered is we tend to give films that connect with our own personal journey higher marks and after its opening, we wonder why no one else gets it. Welcome To Marwen fits this idea. What is never said by the film is that Hogancamp’s obsession with photography and the world of Marwen serve his art therapy toward recovery. They function as a way for him to come to terms with the angels and demons of his daily struggle. Zemeckis then stitches these photos together to bring Hogancamp’s stories to life.
“Much like anyone in the throes of recovery, this journey is not a nice, tight, three-act Hollywood story with a perfect dramatic ending…”
These stories illustrate his minor daily victories as well as his equally hopeless defeats in this seemingly never-ending cycle of wins followed by losses. As portrayed on screen, Hogancamp’s stories represent the man he wishes he was, as that man overcomes with the trials set before him. The stories and plotlines themselves though come across as tales a child would create with his action figures and admittedly may be a little troubling “in this current climate.” But ultimately, they are the manifestation of Hogencamp working through his problems on the road to normalcy. It’s easy to see why it may not appeal to general audiences.
Much like anyone in the throes of recovery, this journey is not a nice, tight, three-act Hollywood story with a perfect dramatic ending. Finding “normal” is a distant speck on the horizon for Hogancamp and this film depicts only a small segment. Welcome to Marwen doesn’t fix Mark, but instead chooses to focus on one massive battle in his life. The problem with most films based on a real person’s story and experience is finding that line between the subject’s the real story and the marketable big-studio story.
Welcome to Marwen (2018) Directed by Robert Zemeckis. Written by Robert Zemeckis, Caroline Thompson. Starring Steve Carell, Leslie Mann, Diane Kruger, Merrit Wever, Janelle Monáe, Eiza Gonzalez, Gwendoline Christie.
7 out of 10 stars