The ingredients fuelling Robert Zemeckis’ Welcome To Marwen are bizarre. Adapted from Jeff Malmberg’s 2010 documentary Marwencol about Mark Hogancamp, who after being beaten for being a cross dresser created a 1/6th World War II-era Belgian town to work through his lack of memory, it throws together disparate elements — subtle performance capture, World War II movie parody, shoe fetishism — to articulate its hero’s pain. It’s a bold, bonkers move by a filmmaker always willing to walk a tightrope between dark humour and big emotions, but is only partially successful in illuminating a damaged worldview.
Mark Hogancamp (Steve Carell) is a traumatised shoe fetishist (287 pairs and counting), bereft of memory following a severe beating, who has a nexus of women who look out for him; Roberta (Merritt Weaver), a toyshop worker who furnishes him with dolls; Julie (Janelle Monáe), a friend he met in rehab; Caralala (Eiza González) his co-worker at a restaurant; Anna (Gwendoline Christie), his Russian carer. But in his fantasy life, Mark is Hogie, a grizzled captain with a shoe fetish, protected by 12” soldier versions of his real-life support group from Deja Thoris (Diane Kruger), a Belgian witch in league with the Nazis. If all that sounds nuts, Aquaman’s bongo-playing octopus is prosaic in comparison.
It doesn't completely work, but it swings for the fences.
From his USC short A Field Of Honor to his screenplay for Spielberg’s 1941, Zemeckis has long had a penchant for gung-ho military antics and Welcome To Marwen plays this to the hilt. Inside Marwen, the film becomes Small Soldiers directed by Sam Fuller, Zemeckis’ gleefully mounting plane crashes, Nazi torture sequences and town square shoot-outs in miniature. In Hogancamp’s head, “women are the saviours of the world” and his Marwen protectors kick ass, strutting in time to Robert Palmer’s ‘Addicted To Love’ but knowing never to get too close to Hogie. As armed-to-the-teeth Barbies take on Nazi G.I. Joes, Zemeckis’ tricksy camerawork gives it energy, and bravura transitions tellingly blur the difference between the small-scale world and reality.
In the real world, Carell, evoking an older Andy Stitzer from The 40-Year-Old-Virgin, inhabits Hogancamp but never really illuminates him. The twin ticking bombs here are the court case of his attackers and an exhibition of photographs of Marwen at a gallery, both of which Hogancamp is frightened to attend. Yet the big change in his life is provided by Nicol (Leslie Mann in a thankless role), his new neighbour, who catches his attention and gives rise to one of the most awkward proposal scenes imaginable. Zemeckis and co-writer Caroline Thompson don’t really offer any insights into the (peculiarly male) desire to lose yourself in plastic or convincingly plot Hogancamp’s way out of his torpor. It doesn’t completely work, but it’s a studio picture that swings for the fences. And in this day and age, that is to be applauded.