Robert Zemeckis is cinema’s most underrated director.
OK, maybe that isn’t entirely true, but now that I have your attention, let me explain. The helmer of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Forrest Gump, Back to the Future and Contact is often regarded as a purveyor of pop culture rather than a true artist. He’s also often labeled an innovator whose special effects and technological experimentation overwhelm his stories – a poor man’s Spielberg. (Remember The Polar Express and Beowulf?) And though his new fantasy-dramedy, Welcome to Marwen, does little to counter those mostly undeserved criticisms, it’s still worth experiencing on the big screen for its spectacle and emotion.
Inspired by the 2010 documentary Marwencol, Zemeckis’s film puts a new spin on the tale of real-life crime victim Mark Hogancamp (Steve Carell). After admitting to a gang of five hooligans outside a bar in Kingston, New York, that he enjoyed cross-dressing, Hogancamp was beaten almost to death. A talented illustrator before the attack, Hogancamp was left unable to draw and unable to remember his past.
To build a new life mentally, Hogancamp began to build physically. And his creativity took the form of a miniature town, which he named Marwencol. (Zemeckis and his co-writer, Caroline Thompson, shorten it to the more user-friendly Marwen but pay a clever, if invented, homage to the real town’s name toward the end of their film.)
As do many victims, Hogancamp had difficulty relating to people following his assault. So he populated his town with Barbie Doll versions of people he knew – even his attackers. He took particular joy in bonding with beautiful women, something he couldn’t do for real. In Zemeckis’s slightly fictionalized version of Hogancamp’s life, those tiny companions include sexy next-door neighbor Nicol (Leslie Mann) and a friend (Merritt Wever) who manages the store at which he buys his dolls. His toy town becomes a rich tableau of both artistry and survival, and it speaks to the fragility and insecurities in all of us.
But sometimes it speaks too loudly. Indeed, there are times when the film can’t stop yelling, stylistically. Alternating between the real world and Hogancamp’s fantasies, Zemeckis depicts the latter using performance-capture technology and frenetic action. Though it’s visually brilliant (and a tad creepy thanks to its “uncanny valley” aesthetic), the film occasionally has difficulty with its transitions, which can be jarring and heavy-handed, especially when they follow the sad, sweet scenes between Carell and Mann. It’s almost as if Zemeckis designed the digital set pieces first and structured the story around them, instead of the reverse. And though Welcome to Marwen is a more significant artistic and cinematic accomplishment than the doc upon which it’s based, it cries out for a slightly more lighthearted, subtle touch in order to capture the quiet profundity of the real story.
But this is Zemeckis in his fantastical element, and he packs in plenty of visual treats, including some delicious, if nonsensical, references to Back to the Future. He clearly had fun making this movie, and his joy is infectious. Admittedly, a couple of plot points either go unresolved or fall flat, but the story itself is emotionally powerful. Even the seemingly strange inclusion of mild violence and sexuality gives the film a depth and maturity it otherwise might not have had. And the chemistry between Carell and Mann help maintain narrative momentum as one grows tired of the animated interludes and the unending references to Hogancamp’s assault.
“A lot of weird stuff happens in Marwen,” Mark explains. “Stuff that doesn’t make sense.”
True that. But at least the good weird outweighs the bad, and is buoyed by unique, imaginative revelations about human suffering.