The Pitch: Previously told in documentary form as Marwencol in 2010, Welcome to Marwen is the fictional studio take on Mark Hogancamp’s fascinating true story. Beaten and left for dead by a gang of homophobes, Hogancamp (Steve Carell) was attacked because, while drunk, he demurred about enjoying and wearing women’s shoes. Hogancamp lost many of his prior memories, skills, and even some relationships. But he found a respite in toys. He created Marwencol, a 1/6 scale fictitious World War II square that backdrops for a world of characters inspired by people in his real life. His avatar is “Hogie”, a scarred, grizzled man’s man and pilot. There’s Caralala (Eiza González), a Spanish fighter based on a cook Mark works with. GI Julie (Janelle Monáe) is inspired by Mark’s physical trainer. Roberta (Merritt Wever) resembles Mark’s toy shop clerk. And there are plenty of other enemies, brave women, and sets in Marwencol.

Marwen is all adult theatrics with PG-rated toys. Through highly detailed dolls and clever photography, not only does Hogancamp create pulp-like imagery of dames and derring-do against the Nazis, but Hogancamp himself finds this to be a healing outlet. A creative means to act out vengeance against the bastards who cracked his skull open. A romanticization of what and who matters most. But what’s the cost? What are the pitfalls of this healing process? Can life imitate art? Can Steve Carell pass as a glossy action doll? To that last point, at least: yep.

New Zemeck-tion: “Marwencol was solely made up so I could kill those five guys.” – Mark Hogancamp, 2015.

Equally earnest and out of its goddamned mind, Welcome to Marwen sure is … something. Marwen is full of sights and emotions that hit in strange, surprising, and difficult new ways. Robert Zemeckis treats Hogancamp’s story like a grenade, tossing in drama, comedy, surrealism, CG extravaganza, addiction fable, kink, fantasy, vintage pulp, and even a little courtroom drama. Welcome to Marwen. So much Marwen.

Here’s a valiant effort about healing, expression, curiosity, and the power and peril of escapism. Where this year’s Ready Player One was a sneak-attack indictment of escapism, Welcome to Marwen is a wily exclamation of escapism’s best and boldest possibilities. Mad about your job? Amorous for your neighbor? You can’t solve those problems with ease in real life. But in the toyland of Marwen? No rules apply. All of Mark’s most detail-driven dreams come true. He smites his Nazi abusers, and is able to be suave and even seductive toward the women in his life. The most damaging portions of his psyche can be resolved one shootout, bisection, and time-machine scenario at a time.

Carell is such a sensitive and chummy lead that it’s hard not to be patient with his struggle to rediscover himself. If all memory is lost, the dolls are a portal to his innermost loves and shames. The real Hogancamp felt an equally karmic and erotic fondness towards women, because to him, they never aggravated wars. His “women of Marwen”, based on neighbors and caregivers, are his love letter to his understanding of the fairer sex. (This is, to say the least, a huge problem zone of the film’s. Even if Mark adores these women so much that he wants to make art out of them, they’re his pliable items in a prop box to be controlled. It renews the old argument about intent versus depiction, and his cohorts have different feelings on the practice.)

When Zemeckis and co-writer Caroline Thompson (Edward Scissorhands) club you over the head with their plasticized characters, the messaging is mostly agreeable. Hate crimes have no place in modern society. People should feel free to express themselves without persecution. Women rule, jerks drool. And they illustrate all of it with nifty CG setpieces. The opening plane crash, shown in digitized micro-photography, depicts Hogie crashing a plane and emerging unscathed. Boots burnt, and that’s it. How optimistic. Mark emboldens the women in his life as GI Janes, with full artillery and corny one-liners. He’s able to turn his attackers into SS soldiers, and get back at them in violent, legal ways. Art therapy.

At times, however, Marwen can be thorny or simplistic, even as it’s delivered with such style. How about a green-haired doll named Deja Thoris (Diane Kruger) to represent Mark’s drug problem? Or a time machine (made irksomely to look like a DeLorean…) to explore notions of choice? And on Mark’s worldview of these women. It ranges, from empowering to creepy to actively unresolved. The heart is there, but the actions can be squirmy. Take his crush on his new neighbor Nicol (Leslie Mann). He makes up their courtship in dollhouse bars and battlefield snogs. The photos are gorgeous, and the romantic lighting is just studio lighting handsome. But when they’re presented to Nicol? We’ll just say it’s a dicey game that Mark plays.

Equally self-aware and sincere, Zemeckis is like a Lego master trying all sorts of shapes and platforms to convey ideas. But some pieces still feel left on the floor.

Toy Story: The one immutable bit of praise that Welcome to Marwen deserves is in the CGI department. Zemeckis, ever the master of digital sheen in the service of elevated storytelling, forms the amazing spaces in which Hogancamp’s imagination lives. While Hogancamp’s real-life photos are still, and fairly dry, Zemeckis opts for his renowned brand of whiz kid flair. Crucially, it works to embolden Mark’s dreams. We’re talking impaled and burned Nazis. Toy cars full of female soldiers seamlessly transitioning to Mark pulling the Jeep along the side of the road in one take. Still photographs of the dolls that glide out of Mark’s SLR as he smokes and reflects on his work. And of course, there’s a cast of recognizable actresses made to look like a gang of eminently likeable and expressive Barbies…with molotov cocktails. It’s great.

Enhanced puppeteering? Live actors replaced? Fully digital rendering? Trick photography? It actually leaves you wondering, “how’d they do that?”

The Verdict: Too unwieldy for the holiday crowd, and perhaps too high-concept for even Zemeckis fans, Marwen is too much, not enough, and yet still deeply watchable. It’s admirable for the wildly different approaches it takes. Only a stylist like Zemeckis could try something like this. Take a real man’s witty, real-life therapy-based photography and attempt to spin it into a mo-cap circus with every genre tool he can think of.

But can any other film this year lay claim to a scene like Hogancamp having a panic attack in court, one that transforms into a bloody and bulleted shootout with life-size dolls and fluid action photography? Has any other film attempted to blend ‘80s French maid pornography with PTSD-riddled jump scares? And does any other film have Steve Carell blithely walk down the road in heels and a bomber jacket to assert his hard-fought sense of self? And some of it is downright ridiculous, and shaky narratively. But it’s brazen, too (read: memorable). Like it’s bonkers by all accounts and frankly quite jarring at times. But it’s a film that needs to be seen to be believed. It’s the stuff ‘cult’ was made for. And it tries so hard, occasionally wows, and Zemeckis and Carell at least have the gumption to get out there with the material. This film’s many discordant scenes are so well-crafted and so creative and so odd, that you can’t help but feel like Welcome to Marwen won the battle in some way, even if it eventually loses you in its chaotic structure. That will be Marwen’s real medal in time.

Where’s It Playing?: Limited release on December 21st, with Thursday previews the night before. Everywhere on Christmas, because everyone wants a toy for Christmas.

Trailer:





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