Welcome To Marwen

by Greg Vellante

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Wednesday December 19, 2018

'Welcome To Marwen'
'Welcome To Marwen'  

Robert Zemeckis' "Welcome to Marwen" is an unholy mess. It's noisy, both visually and aurally, and yet on an emotional level, it's operating with the mute button on.

This liberty-taking dramatization is based on the true story of Mark Hogancamp (Steve Carell), a man who was beaten within an inch of his life by five thugs at a bar after drunkenly admitting that he enjoys wearing women's shoes. After a long recovery of regaining his physical and mental abilities, Hogancamp is left with no memories of the life he led. As a form of personal therapy, Hogancamp creates "Marwen," a fictional town in 1944, World War II-era Belgium that's meticulously constructed in Mark's yard. Using action figures and dolls that resemble both Hogancamp himself ("Captain Hogie") and the numerous people in his life, especially women, Mark uses photography to tell elaborate and imaginative stories about Hogie, "The Women of Marwen" and the evil Nazis that continually try to disrupt their peaceful life in Marwen.

What I've just described is more or less accurate when referring to the actual Mark Hogencamp story, which was affectionately observed in the exceptional 2010 documentary, "Marwencol." But just as the script (story by Zemeckis, screenplay by Caroline Thompson) erases the last three letters from the name of Hogancamp's town, "Welcome to Marwen" seems far more focused on aspects that are distant from the ultimate effectiveness of what makes Hogancamp's story so great. With sentiments that are as artificial as the plastic sheen of Hogancamp's figures, "Welcome to Marwen" attempts to utilize Mark's woes and triumphs for emotional cheap tricks and cinematic hijinks.

Zemeckis has always loved playing with new film techniques - the use of 3D, IMAX and heights for 2015's "The Walk," motion capture for 2004's "The Polar Express," 2007's "Beowulf" and 2009's "A Christmas Carol," etc. - but with "Welcome to Marwen" he seems overwhelmingly enthused to be playing with elements of scale and CGI that never quite piece together the way he wants to. Bringing to life Mark's brilliantly told stories of Nazi fights, love, and loss, Zemeckis comes off as a kid who refuses to come into dinner when his mom is calling him, choosing instead to play with his toys. During certain scenes, if you listen really hard, you can practically hear Zemeckis himself going "Vroom Vroom!" and making machine gun noises behind the camera.

What should've been an emotionally stirring story, as was the prior documentary, turns into playtime for a director who's far more interested in technique than tone. On an aesthetic level, this is a film told in admittedly interesting ways, yet none of these methods actually work with the story at hand. Yes, Hogancamp's artistic rehabilitation is a fascinating tale of one's ability to overcome trauma through passion, but the film relies too heavily on A) the action sequences within Mark's stories (the movie has more Nazi massacres than Zemeckis' 2016 WWII drama, "Allied"), and B) the meaningful yet problematically assembled messages of "being yourself" and not letting trauma overtake your existence. These messages were communicated far more effectively in the recent "Halloween" remake, as they were interwoven into the film's overall thrills and horror. The emotional ruse of "Welcome to Marwen," however, takes center stage, stiletto heels and all.

Mark's cross-dressing was certainly examined in "Marwencol," but "Welcome to Marwen" really wants you to be aware of this distinction. "Why were you attacked?" a character asks. "Because I was different," Hogancamp replies. In the opening scene, Mark wearing stilettos is instantly played for laughs. In an action sequence, a stiletto heel is used as a weapon, plunging deeply into a Nazi's neck. In a closing scene, his stiletto-wearing is instead seen as a victory. And while I imagine the movie aims to challenge audiences who laugh at the opening scene by slowly unraveling the psyche of Mark's cross-dressing, the attempt comes off as completely off-kilter.

It's a crucial topic to discuss, for sure, but this movie certainly feels like a strange platform for it to be communicated upon. Marketed as an inspiring, family-friendly, holiday season blockbuster, "Welcome to Marwen" is anything but. It's oddly over-sexualized for a movie that says "Hey, parents, take your kids to this" (at one point, Mark is watching a porno tape where the central character turns into a Nazi after inviting a hotel maid to pleasure his privates, a truly bizarre sequence), and it is also shockingly violent (Nazis are gunned down in droves, impaled, stabbed and everything in between, blood included). Sure, it's nice to see a Nazi die every once in a while, but the misguided, tightrope-walking tone of the movie seems to perish right along with the slayings.

This film tries to be funny, culturally significant, action-packed, sad, uplifting, thrilling, educational, and so many other things all at once, but it ultimately comes off as an ineffective, emotionally aggressive, self-important and baffling experiment that is Zemeckis' most similar film to the overrated "Forrest Gump" since, well, "Forrest Gump." ("But 'Forrest Gump' is the frickin' best movie ever," you may reply like Ray Romano's character in "The Big Sick," in which case you should buy your tickets to "Welcome to Marwen" immediately).