Welcome to Marwen: Whacked-Out
by Sandra Olmsted
Robert Zemeckis’ “Welcome to Marwen” is a quirky, poorly scripted, and strangely compelling film. Covering the same material, and less effectively, as Jeff Malmberg’s documentary Marwencol (2010), “Welcome to Marwen” follows the true story of Mark Hogancamp (Steve Carell), a gifted comic book artist who is badly beaten by a group of homophobic men. As a result, Mark can no longer even sign his name. After spending nine days in a coma, Mark awoke to a totally altered self because the beating destroyed all his previous memories and his ability to draw. As a way to continue to make art in order both to cope and to heal, Mark resorts to using photography and posable art dolls to tell stories. Clearly, Zemeckis focuses on the compelling theme of the healing power of creating art through Mark’s imaginary world of Marwen.
Since WWII was Mark’s specialty, he recasts his attackers as Nazis and the women in his life as resistance fighters who help a downed US pilot trapped behind enemy lines. Using his backyard, scale-model Belgian village and those dolls, Mark replays versions of the attack in which American Air Force Captain Hoagie (also voice of Carell), Mark’s alter ego, triumphs over the Nazi criminals out to kill him. Hoagie’s battalion of tough, sexy, and provocatively-dressed dolls and their real-life counterparts includes Carlala, Roberta, Anna, GI Julie, and Suzette (respectively Eiza Gonzalez, Merritt Wever, Gwendoline Christie, Janelle Monae, and Leslie Zemeckis, the director’s wife). Marwen is a combination of Mark’s name and that of Wendy (Stefanie von Pfetten), the bartender who found Mark in the street an hour after the beating when the bar closed.
As both a New York gallery opening of Mark’s artwork and a courtroom confrontation with his attackers approach, Mark’s stress and anxiety reach a fever pitch. Will he be able to cope with either or both of these important steps in moving forward with his life? Or will he continue to hide in this barnyard fantasy world? Meanwhile, the Nazis won’t stay dead which seems to be related to Deja Thoris (Diane Kruger), a witch who lives in Marwen and attacks Hoagie and his women warriors frequently, and in real life, bedevils Mark in other ways. Mark may find some help and comfort from his physical therapist (Monáe) and from his and Capt. Hoagie love interests, Roberta (Wever), the hobby shop owner, and, eventually, Nicol (Leslie Mann), who moves in across the street from Mark.
The actual attack is told mostly in flashbacks and reveals an underdeveloped theme. After a drunken Mark told five equally drunken jerks that he wasn’t gay but did occasionally wear women’s shoes, the men follow Mark outside and beat him so badly Wendy thought he was trash bag until he moved. Although the remark could have been taken as just a smart-alecky remark, the thugs were itching for a victim to thrash. Too caught up in the depiction of Mark’s Marwen journey through grieve, anger, and fear to mental health, the film glosses over a theme which might have resonated with women. Whether Mark provoked his attackers or not, he did not deserve to be attacked. The film also makes light of Mark’s enjoyment of wearing women’s shoes rather than developing this cross-dressing theme. Zemeckis and co-screenwriter Caroline Thompson’s comparison of homophobic jerks to Nazis is valid, just overdone when other themes could have been developed better and rounded out the film better.
Labeling “Welcome to Marwen” as marginal, as many critics have, is always a matter of how many films a critic has seen and, specifically, how many really bad films the critic has actually seen. While “Welcome to Marwen” tries to walk a thin line between exploitation of women and women as strong, yet sexual, human beings, the movie as a whole never truly gels. Perhaps it was Carell’s performance; however, Zemeckis should have been aware of the actor’s flippant performance. Perhaps it was the glossing over of the torture and fetishism elements, although the bottom-line is that Zemeckis, as the skilled director, should have done more to make the film cohesive.
Another problem may be monetary because “Welcome to Marwen’s” biggest problem is the marketing. By positioning the film as a mainstream film with fun and funny moments, Universal Pictures, which released “Welcome to Marwen,” made a misstep. The film would have played better as an art house film and with the darker themes explored more rigorously. “Welcome to Marwen” is rated PG-13 for sequences of fantasy violence, some disturbing images, brief suggestive content, thematic material, and language and runs 116 minutes.