Gladly saying Goodbye to ‘Welcome to Marwen’
Directed by: Robert Zemeckis
Written by: Robert Zemeckis and Caroline Thompson
Starring: Steve Carell, Leslie Mann, Merritt Wever
“Welcome to Marwen” – It’s difficult to remember a film that featured as many toy army action figure sequences as “Welcome to Marwen”. The little green army men from the “Toy Story” series come to mind, but the plastic troops, led by the voice of R. Lee Ermey, were just supporting players. In co-writer/director Robert Zemeckis’ new movie, a small group of 12-inch fabrications occupy, perhaps, fifty percent of a very, very long 1-hour 56-minute runtime.
The picture begins with an engaging animated World War II aerial scenario over Belgium, where Captain Hogie, who looks and sounds like Steve Carell, flies a plane, but the Germans shoot him down. He survives the crash landing, however, a group of Nazis quickly face him. Thankfully, they are blown to bits by a barrage of gunfire from a group of five likable women who resemble a cross between the Spice Girls and a spruced-up, female version of the Village People. All of the players are plastic action figures coming to life, and based on the first few minutes of “Welcome to Marwen”, this strange, 1940s worldbuilding from Zemeckis’ mind does have welcome appeal.
It turns out that these characters come from the mind of Mark Hogancamp, a middle-aged Kingston, NY artist who suffers from PTSD from a life-altering hate-crime beating, and Captain Hogie and the female dolls, who he refers to as Dolls, now rent most of his headspace and time, even while he’s working at a pub or occasionally conversing with local residents.
“Welcome to Marwen” is a personal story about overcoming trauma, and the movie attempts to balance Mark’s reality with his chief outlet to recover from his said ordeal, but the fictional world of Marwen does not really allow him to move forward. He simply trades his pain for an occupying obsession, and the cycle repeats.
This does not exactly work as appealing storytelling, because throughout the picture, Hogie and the Dolls (actually, that sounds like a cool band name) repeatedly engage the Nazis, which ultimately lead to the bad guys’ bullet-riddled demises. The Nazis always revive though, like zombies, except plastic does not decompose. No, they look brand new and are full of emotional vitriol, when The Band confronts them again and again.
Since, the film unwisely reveals the source of Mark’s suffering within the first 10 to 15 minutes, the narrative has little place to go, so Zemeckis and company decide to play out numerous, analogous plastic fights instead.
Sure, these recurring resurrections have a certain fascination, like kittens chasing the same piece of string every morning, afternoon and evening. In this movie, however, less is more, and the novelty of plastic toys playing war and devolving into nearly identical arguments loses his luster at about the 50-minute mark.
Speaking of “mark”, naturally, the events and characters in Marwen reflect Mark’s experiences. The Nazis represent the hooligans who beat him senseless. The Dolls are strong women in his life, and their modern-day self-assuredness presents a positive appeal. Add a sweet neighbor named Nicol (Leslie Mann), and Mark could have a love interest.
This could be nice.
Mark suffers from physical and psychological trauma, copes with his limitations and struggles with medication, so the film makes it easy to cheer for our protagonist. However, the movie’s more innocent tones become muddled, when Mark purchases and “cares for” a red-headed doll as a depiction of Nicol. He even names her Nicol, and when he lovingly applies lipstick (with a giddy smile on his face) to the Nicol-doll under a magnifying glass, the scene seems anything but virtuous. Quite frankly, it feels creepy, and by the way, another doll runs around with an open blouse for a short while. This particular braless plastic girl also doubles as Mark’s friend Roberta (Merritt Wever), so yes, it gets awkward.
Are these scenes supposed to be endearing and/or funny?
The one saving grace is that “Welcome to Marwen” is based on Mark Hogancamp’s true story, so some latitude is warranted, and this critic hopes that he lives a happy and fruitful life. It does not excuse Zemeckis’ ham-handed handling of tones and misplaced enthusiasm for gratuitous plastic gunplay. Since Mark’s story deals with adult concepts, less adolescent playtime would translate much better on-screen. Childlike concepts and adult themes can work well in film. Just go back to the aforementioned “Toy Story” series, but they feel repetitive, odd and off-putting here.
Lastly, the hopeful point of the picture is to see Mark conquer his demons, but Zemeckis leaves little time for the man’s recovery, so the final confrontation seems added as an afterthought. Here’s another afterthought: Goodbye, “Welcome to Marwen”.
Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008 and graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest, respectively.