Based on the true story of Mark Hogancamp, that also inspired 2010’s award-winning documentary Marwencol, Welcome to Marwen is Oscar winner Robert Zemeckis’ attempt to recapture the tale of addiction, depression, and escapism as populist entertainment. Featuring a bravado performance from Steve Carell as Hogancamp, can Zemeckis really translate such a tough and unnerving tale into something relating to his previous triumphs like Forrest Gump and the Back to the Future trilogy?
Mark Hogancamp is a damaged soul that takes refuge in his own creation of Marwen, a small-scale replica of a fictional Belgian town in World War II. In Marwen, he’s represented by Capt. Hogie (Carell also – but animated as a plastic action figure) and surrounded by ‘The Women of Marwen’ who all represent women who have been strong presences in his life. Constantly hounded by the SS, who are represented by Hogancamp’s real-life attackers and are brought back to life constantly by the ‘Demon Witch of Belgium’ Deja Thoris (Diane Kruger), Capt. Hogie is always in danger as is any woman who dares get close to him as the jealous Deja will kill them. Mark’s real life is a diet of pills and delusions until a new woman moves next door (Leslie Mann) and enters his life. Also looming over him is the court date for his attackers, where his lawyer is pushing for his attendance.
There’s nothing that can be said to describe this film that doesn’t make it sound like a complete mess because it is. The script is all over the place here, opting for fluffy flights of fancy that never mesh with the harsher aspects of the story, and glossing over important facts about the real story that gives it a lack of texture and depth. Welcome to Marwen will certainly disappoint fans of the documentary greatly as there isn’t enough of the real story to do Mark Hogancamp’s real ordeal any sort of justice, and audiences who have not seen the documentary are likely to be left confused, disengaged and disappointed by this lackluster final product. The script feels like it was written by people who ‘think’ they know what depression and addiction are about- but obviously haven’t a clue.
Zemeckis’ direction here isn’t great either. His decisions in certain scenes to cram in levity where it has no place being there just feel awkward and forced. In Forrest Gump the serious reactions from Hanks in standout sequences feel earned and deserved, where here they feel unjustified because they aren’t earned in any way through the rest of the story. Also, Zemeckis’ decision to make the Deja Thoris character the villain of the story and create a character that’s supposed to represent Mark’s past addictions but with all the depth and character nuance of a classic Disney villain never really works in any capacity. It’s a shame because it wastes a perfectly adequate performance from Kruger.
In fact, the one thing that keeps Welcome to Marwen from being an utter disaster is the performances. Carell is strong here as Hogancamp, even if the final product does his work as a disservice. His commitment to the character is admirable and he’s really doing his best work when Mark is struggling outside of his fantasy world. The women of Marwen are all pretty good here too- with Merritt Wever being the real standout as lovelorn hobby shop worker Roberta. Gwendoline Christie also does her best to steal every scene she’s in as the rambunctious Russian aide worker Anna.
Alas, despite the hard work of the actors, Welcome to Marwen falls flat. It’s far too shallow and superfluous to be considered as anything other than slight and its lack of cohesion is likely to frustrate and annoy audiences more than entertain. Its another misstep in the hit or miss string of films that have seemingly dominated the more recent part of Zemeckis’ career and it’s a real shame because Mark Hogancamp’s story is fascinating, riveting and inspiring. Guess it’s a good thing we’ll always have Marwencol to watch instead.