Welcome to Marwen is Hollywood’s take on the story of Mark Hogancamp, an artist in upstate New York who, nearly 20 years ago, was so severely beaten outside a bar that he lost nearly all memory of who he’d been.
The assault left him injured and unable to continue his work as an illustrator, so he built elaborate, idiosyncratic miniature worlds using off-the-shelf dolls and modified costumes. You may have seen his story, the award-winning 2010 documentary Marwencol.
He created a fictitious a WWII Belgian town where Allied and Nazi soldiers tangled, and heroic resistance fighters joined the fray. The figures were often avatars of friends and foes, and he used them to address the assault that was precipitated after he revealed that he had a proclivity for wearing women’s shoes. By doing so, he could reframe his trauma as a period narrative in which he could play the hero and control the outcome.
Hogancamp became known for the striking photographs he took of the scenes he created — they were positively cinematic, and it was, of course, inevitable that Hollywood would take the cue, and turn Hogancamp’s experience into a movie.
Now it’s here, starring Steve Carell as Hogancamp, and directed by Robert Zemeckis, who specializes in movie technology that blurs the line between what the camera records and what digital artists can create — suited to Hogancamp’s story, which resides at the intersection of real and the imagined.
Live-action portions of the film show Hogancamp working on his installation, interacting anxiously with the outside world. As he positions his figures, the movie takes the implied narrative of Hogancamp’s photos and makes it actual — creating fantasy sequences featuring a motion-captured Carell as Hogie, tough-talking Allied pilot who is the artist’s alter ego.
The first few minutes of the movie, in fact, encapsulate everything Welcome to Marwen wants to do with Hogancamp’s story: Hogie (in heels) is attacked, rescued by motion-captured Janelle Monae and Leslie Mann, and given the courage finally to face those who attacked him. It’s a miniature movie about a miniaturist, with multiple levels of reality and irony in play.
Marwen could have stopped there, but goes on to add familiar Hollywood elements — Mann is the pretty new neighbor who moves in across the street, initiating (in Mark’s mind) a redemptive romance. Another thread has Mark facing his attackers in court — on the very date of his first big photographic exhibition.
Those conventions sit a little uneasily with the movie’s larger ambition to tell an original story about art, perception, trauma, and healing — Zemeckis clearly wants to create something as offbeat and original as Hogancamp’s own photos. The movie doesn’t quite get there, and the strategy to make “Hogancamp’s” fantasies come to life as a motion-capture movie raises questions about whose imagination is being served in these moments — the subject’s or the filmmaker’s? Hogancamp’s miniatures, after all, are entirely under his creative control, and entirely him. This is something different, no matter how daring or well-intentioned or collaborative.
The movie works best when it falls back on plain old acting. Merritt Wever is sweet presence as the hobby shop worker and gentle soul who understands Mark’s obsessions, and appreciates his art. Her scenes with Carell are the movie’s least technological, and its best.
Directed by Robert Zemeckis. With Steve Carell, Leslie Mann, Merrit Wever, Diane Kruger, and Janelle Monae. Distributed by Universal Pictures.
Parents' guide: PG-13
Running time: 116 minutes