It’s taken a long time to find the perfect dramatic role for Steve Carell, but this is it. Playing real-life comic book artist Mark Hogancamp dealing with the trauma of a vicious hate crime that left him with brain damage so severe he is unable to draw, Carell brings a heart and comedy to what might otherwise be an incredibly bleak and depressing film.
Welcome to Marwen mixes live action realism with a Secret Life of Walter Mitty-esque fantasy life where the poseable action figures and dolls he uses in his photographs come to life and act out the inner feelings of his mind. Their setting is the fictional town of Marwen, a Belgian villa in World War II, under seige by Nazis who no matter how many times they kill them, they always come back.
The city is guarded by “Hoagie,” an American pilot who is an avatar for Carell, and a cadre of powerful women who represent the real-life women around him. They’re also besieged by a witch, another manifestation of Mark’s psyche, intent on destroying Hoagie’s happiness.
The best thing about this film is the true to life feeling of the animated action figures. Using highly detailed motion-capture similar to what director Robert Zemeckis previously used in The Polar Express and A Christmas Carol, the Uncanny-Valley-ness of that technology goes away because they are mapped to action figures rather than real people. The resulting animation is like watching a heartfelt, lifelike Robot Chicken.
It’s good that those portions of the film are so light, funny, sometimes over-the-top violent, and entertaining, because the rest of the story is rather bleak and sad.
The only real complaint with the film is its lack of a seemingly broader message. While we feel a lot of things, we’re not necessarily left with any sense of what that means. Not every film needs to have a meaning, but it feels like this film should maybe have had one. It’s fine as just a nice character study and fun use of visual effects, but that’s all it ends up being. It just feels like it’s missing something and that leave it on only the cusp of greatness.
The film also has some problematic depictions of its female characters. While they are numerous and diverse, all of them only have an existence around Mark and his trauma. It’s like it would almost pass the Bechdel test, except that every conversation is literally about him. The point of this film is not necessarily to be about the agency and lives of other women, but it is still almost 100% focused on only its singular character.
It feels like somewhat of a waste of people like Janelle Monae to show up and only deliver a few lines in service of a white man’s trauma. Leslie Mann is also incredibly good as his across the street neighbor Nicol. Mann, like Carell, is able to work both the comedy and serious sides of the film to an incredible degree. It is one of the best performances of her career.
But this falls short– when you have other incredibly female forward films in theaters right now like Widows or The Favourite, despite being focused on female leads, they do not present their male co-stars with such short shrift.
Hogancamp is a very broken person still dealing with his trauma. So much of this film is working out his post-traumatic stress and trying to find a normal existence. It’s very heartwarming but also very sad depiction what trauma does to people.
We’re very lucky to have this film so beautifully rendered and have Hoagie looking out for us as a testament to survival.
3 out of 5 stars
PS – There is also a documentary Marwencol that also tells the true story of Mark Hogancamp from 2010. It is available to watch on iTunes and Kanopy, which allows you to stream films through your local library.