Thursday, December 20, 2018

A shattered man's world of dolls

Steve Carell portrays a man obsessed with World War II in Welcome to Marwen.
Director Robert Zemeckis has devoted a substantial portion of his career to films that play with cinematic convention. We’re talking about movies ranging from Who Framed Roger Rabbit to The Polar Express to Beowulf to A Christmas Carol. In Welcome to Marwen, Zemeckis continues his fascination with artificial worlds. Throughout the movie, he shifts from "normal" big screen reality to a world full of dolls that resemble characters in the movie's real-world story.

Welcome to Marwen is based on the life of Mark Hogancamp, a photographer whose work consists mostly of taking photos in and around Marwencol, a fictional miniature Belgian town he built in his backyard and populated with dolls and other toys.

If that sounds familiar, it could be for two reasons: Hogancamp’s photographs have been featured in several New York galleries and Hogancamp’s life was the subject of a fascinating 2010 documentary by Jeff Malmberg.

Those who’ve seen Malmberg's documentary already know Hogancamp’s backstory. In 2000, he was severely beaten outside a bar in upstate New York by five thugs who objected to him talking about the enjoyment he got from wearing women’s shoes. Hogancamp was in a coma for 40 days, lost all memory of his personal life prior to the assault and then began to channel his anxieties and rage into World War II tableaus in Marwencol. He had a particular fascination with battling against Nazis and his fantasies took on a pulpy, comic-book quality.

So what was left to say after the documentary? As it turns out, not much.

In Welcome to Marwen, the stories that take place inside of Marwen (all enacted with dolls that resemble characters from Hogancamp's life and voiced by actors) aren't all that interesting and the overall story vacillates between being creepy and heart-warming, never quite making up its mind which map to follow.

Using his terrible beating as an explanation, Carell portrays Hogancamp as a shattered man who long ago lost the ability to read social signals. He's briefly enamored with a new neighbor (Leslie Mann), mistaking her kindness for romantic interest.

Meritt Wever plays the owner of the local hobby shop Hogancamp frequents and Diane Kruger provides the voice of Deja Thoris, a witch-like figure who haunts Hogancamp and his Marwen alter-ego figure, Cap'n Hogie.

Working from a screenplay he co-wrote with Caroline Thompson, Zemeckis takes a stab at illuminating serious issues involving hate crimes, personal freedom (symbolized by Hogancamp's preference for wearing women's high-heeled shoes) and tolerance.

Alan Silvestri's score might have been better suited to a magical fantasy; here, it seems at odds with Hogancamp's story.

I wondered if Tim Burton, a director more willing to lean into weird material, might have been a better choice for this story. Zemeckis largely remains outside of Hogancamp's world, turning us into observers.

Welcome to Marwen offers some clever visual touches but never makes it clear what we're supposed to feel about Hogancamp: Is he a crackpot? An emotionally crippled victim? An artist? The movie didn't need to answer all (or any) of those questions, but unlike the documentary, I left without wanting to give them much further thought.

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