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Monday, April 15, 2024

Review: Welcome to Marwen

Zemeckis drama leaves too much unexplored

The well-intentioned but ultimately disappointing “Welcome to Marwen” was released on Dec. 21. The film is based on the life of artist Mark Hogancamp, who was brutally beaten outside of a bar after revealing to a group of men that he enjoys crossdressing. The assault leaves Hogancamp comatose for nine days and erases almost all of his memories before the attack. Hogancamp was an illustrator, but after recovery, his brain injuries left him unable to draw. In order to cope with the trauma, Hogancamp created a 1:6 scale world in his backyard where he narrates and photographs images of dolls in a fictional World War II town called Marwencol.

The film, directed by Robert Zemeckis, takes place during the trial of Hogancamp’s abusers, while Hogancamp is still mentally and physically struggling to grapple with what has happened to him. A major theme in the film is the use of art as therapy. Hogancamp uses his dolls and the world of Marwencol to try to overcome his trauma. Throughout the film, however, he struggles with integrating himself back into the real world and often conflates the events occurring in Marwencol with reality. Hogancamp bases his dolls on people in his life. The film splits the narrative between Hogancamp’s real life and that of his alter ego, Hogie of Marwencol. His attackers take the form of Nazis, who frequently attack Hogie. A band of women, based on supportive influences in Hogancamp’s life, always come to his rescue. Meanwhile, the real Hogancamp, played by Steve Carell, battles the effects of PTSD and a growing addiction to pain medication.

The film truly had potential for greatness. The combination of live action and animation in the film, which highlighted Hogancamp’s suffering, could have been poignant and exciting. The expertise of director Robert Zemeckis, who created critically-acclaimed films such as “Forrest Gump” and “Back to the Future” should have led the film in the right direction. Seasoned actors Steve Carell and Leslie Mann in leading roles should have carried the film on performance alone. Mark Hogancamp’s life and story are inspiring and powerful, but the film simply never gets off its feet in order to do the real Hogancamp any justice. With many great elements, the film fails to come together cohesively, leaving the viewer dissatisfied and a bit confused.

The film’s weakest point, by far, is the writing. While the duality of live action and animation as a vehicle for narration is intriguing at first, the film struggles to balance the two and make them equally compelling. Just as the viewer starts to feel connected to Hogancamp, the narrative shifts to the animated Hogie and his gratuitously violent battles with the Nazis in Marwencol. There are certain times when this tactic is effective, such as when Hogancamp’s PTSD is triggered and he immediately resorts to Marwencol as a coping mechanism. However, more often than not, the transitions are too jarring and ill-timed for the viewer to appreciate. These animated scenes mostly occur when the viewer would rather learn more about the real world in the film. This also leaves less time for either world or the characters in them to feel fully developed or fleshed out. In the end, the film is simply doing too much, leaving both Hogancamp and Hogie’s journey in a state of incompletion.

The writers were also lacking in subtlety. Every theme of the film is basically spelled out for the viewer in either direct dialogue or conspicuous metaphors. One of Hogancamp’s dolls, a blue-haired witch, appears to be the main villain of the film. Named Deja, the doll is constantly looming over both the characters in Marwencol and Hogancamp himself, who keeps the doll propped up in his living room. Within the first few encounters with Deja, the doll’s symbolism for Hogancamp’s addiction to pain pills and his struggles with PTSD is made clear. Deja’s hair color exactly matches the color of the pills Hogancamp is addicted to. In the climax of the animated narrative, Hogie realizes that it is Deja who continues to bring back the Nazis, even after the other dolls defeat them. Actually, Hogie does not just realize this but announces it for the entire audience. Hogie basically tells the viewer exactly how Deja represents Hogancamp’s inner demons and explains how vanquishing her (pouring out his pills) will stop his psychosis and control his flashbacks when triggered. Not only does this oversimplify the mental effects of PTSD, but it also underestimates the viewer by explaining what has been so obvious throughout the film.

The film also lacks focus and a clear point of view. While it is ultimately the story of Hogancamp rediscovering his place in the world outside of Marwencol and overcoming his demons, this resolution takes an excessive, complex route to come to over the course of the film.

Besides Hogancamp, every character feels underdeveloped and one-dimensional. While Marwencol is filled with strong, empowered women who help Hogie, it would have been nice to see who the women were in real life as well. Leslie Mann’s character, Nicol, moves into the house next to Hogancamp. She is introduced as having a tumultuous relationship with a former partner, who appears twice in the film. However, that is the extent of her personal biography in the film. She mainly exists as a puppet to react to Hogancamp and what he is going through. Her past with her ex is never truly explored, and the character is left underdeveloped. Carell and Mann have great chemistry, and their sweet friendship is believable. The film would have been better off exploring more of what these actors could have done with their characters.

That being said, the severe criticism that the film is facing may be a bit extreme. The movie may not be award-winning, but it has its merits. It is endearing and imaginative, and Carell gives a poignant performance. The film also handles Hogancamp’s passion for wearing women’s shoes with elegance and respect. The final scene of Carell dragging his dolls along the road, wearing his war cap and a pair of heels, is triumphant and heartwarming. Hogancamp is an inspiring character, and Carell does an excellent job getting the viewer to root for him.

The film has its moments and manages to tug on heartstrings with its undeniable quirks and charm. While the film may be a bit disappointing in that it fails to live up to its potential, it is still a creative movie that entertains and informs through a fascinating story of triumph and art.

Written by: Alyssa Ilsley — arts@theaggie.org


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