The real-life scenes don’t feel like real life; they feel like a Hollywood falsification of it, despite Steve Carell’s and Leslie Mann’s valiant efforts. Rating: 1.5 stars out of 4.
“Welcome to Marwen” is a misjudgment only a first-rate filmmaker could make.
I hope I’m in the minority with this opinion. It’s a drag to respond poorly to the latest from director/co-writer Robert Zemeckis.
The story behind “Welcome to Marwen” has been recounted, beautifully, by the 2010 documentary “Marwencol.” In 2000, Kingston, New York, resident Mark Hogancamp was nearly killed in a brutal five-man assault. The beating left Hogancamp with a traumatic brain injury, severe impairments and virtually no memories of his life until that night.
Hogancamp sought refuge in a wholly invented world filled with 12-inch-high plastic figures. This was “Marwencol,” Hogancamp’s fantasy Belgian town, and the site of various and variously therapeutic World War II scenarios.
Hogancamp’s Marwencol turned into an extended photo shoot, with Hogancamp capturing images of the imaginary town and its inhabitants. The results found their way to a Manhattan art gallery in 2006.
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There’s so much to this story, it’s clear why Zemeckis was compelled to attempt a big-screen dramatization of this defiantly small-scale universe.
Steve Carell plays Hogancamp and, in the extended motion-capture animation sequences, the studly captain. Roughly half the movie takes place in Marwen, as vignettes of combat, carousing, torture and romance are interlaced with real-world scenes. Screenwriters Caroline Thompson and Zemeckis freely fictionalize their version, so that Nicol, the friendly woman new to Hogancamp’s neighborhood (a warmly empathetic Leslie Mann) becomes an audience conduit. For Hogancamp, Nicol’s threatening ex-boyfriend (Neil Jackson) triggers memories of the homophobic thugs we see in flashback.
Marwen (here shortened from “Marwencol”) very quickly becomes the very thing “Welcome to Marwen” cannot overcome. The way Zemeckis shapes these stop-motion animation scenes, they’re meant to be exciting, funny, scary, a little of everything. But they whack the movie completely off-kilter. We lose the strange, quiet intimacy of Hogancamp’s careful manipulation of this world. The real-life scenes don’t feel like Hogancamp’s real life; they feel like a Hollywood falsification of it, despite Carell’s and Mann’s valiant efforts.
In “Welcome to Marwen,” the toggling between Marwen and Hogancamp’s real world becomes a source of aggravation — a long way from the triumph of the human spirit promised by Universal’s marketing campaign.
★½ “Welcome to Marwen,” with Steve Carell, Leslie Mann, Neil Jackson, Janelle Monáe, Eiza González, Diane Kruger. Directed by Robert Zemeckis, from a screenplay by Zemeckis and Caroline Thompson. 116 minutes. PG-13 for sequences of fantasy violence, some disturbing images, brief suggestive content, thematic material and language. Opens Dec. 21 at multiple theaters.