Back in 2015, Robert Zemeckis gave us "The Walk", which told the true story of French wire-walker Philippe Petit's death-defying 1974 walk between the twin towers of the World Trade Centre. While I enjoyed that movie, Zemeckis' film paled in comparison to a documentary take on the event, James Marsh's 2008 "Man on Wire". Now Zemeckis gives us Welcome to Marwen, which tells the true story of assault survivor Mark Hogancamp (Steve Carell), and it's an exceptionally poor cousin of a previous documentary, Jeff Malmberg's 2010 "Marwencol".
In 2000, Hogancamp was beaten to within an inch of his life by a group of young men he had struck up a conversation within a bar. The thugs took exception to Hogancamp's revelation that he liked to wear women's shoes and undergarments, and so put him in a coma. After over a month in the hospital, Hogancamp was left with brain damage and little recollection of his former life. Unable to afford therapy and terrified of the outside world, Hogancamp retreated into a fantasy world, building 'Marwencol', a scale model replica of a WWII era Belgian village and began acting out dramas with dolls and action figures in which he took violent revenge on his attackers. His photographs of Marwencol became a hit in the art world, with several exhibits of Hogancamp's unique work held around the globe.
Using the 'uncanny valley' animation style he developed in his trilogy of animated films - The Polar Express, Beowulf and A Christmas Carol - Zemeckis brings Marwencol and its plastic inhabitants to life, with roughly half of the film consisting of animated sequences representing the drama being played out in Hogancamp's mind. This subplot revolves around an American pilot (a surrogate for Hogancamp himself) who crash lands in occupied Belgium and joins up with a group of scantily clad female resistance fighters to battle Nazis. The problem with all of this is that because we know it's merely a figment of Hogancamp's damaged psyche, there are no stakes, yet Zemeckis seems more interested in this fantasy world than in any of the human drama playing out in Hogancamp's real life. It has the effect of watching a third-rate Pixar knockoff peppered with extreme violence and risqué eroticism (not to mention an egotistical reference to Zemeckis' most famous franchise), and by the midway point, you'll find yourself sighing every time Zemeckis plunges us back into this plastic and resin milieu.
That said, the real-life drama is no more interesting, as Zemeckis delivers a simplistic and misjudged take on mental health issues that make Hogancamp difficult to empathize with. Hogancamp is haunted by Deja Thoris (Diane Kruger), a witch-like doll that spends the film attempting to lure him into having a drink, and there's something very puritanical about the movie's view of alcohol. Personally, I found myself wishing Hogancamp would head down the pub for a few pints rather than remaining in the far less healthy rut of his obsession with fetishized dolls, but each to their own. Hogancamp was drunk at the time of his assault, and by equating his inebriated state with his attack and demonizing alcohol, there's a pang of judgemental victim blaming wafting from this approach. Hogancamp wasn't beaten up because he was drunk, but simply because he was different, and it's unlikely those young men would have left him alone had he been stone cold sober. Don't cross-dressers have as much right to get rat-arsed as the rest of us?
The hypocrisy inherent in Welcome to Marwen is quite something. On the one hand, it condemns those who negatively judge those who appear different to society's norm, yet at the same time, it plays Hogancamp's cross-dressing for cheap laughs, constantly drawing attention to his high heels in an 'othering' manner, rather than normalizing their presence. As long as films like this continue to portray cross-dressing as something odd, men like Hogancamp will find themselves threatened.
Elsewhere, a villainous ex-boyfriend is introduced listening to heavy metal, a case of Zemeckis passing judgment on a culture that has itself been targeted by the moral majority (The Memphis Three anyone?), and Hogancamp's attackers are portrayed as cartoonish thugs sporting Swastika tattoos rather than the mundane 'everyday' men they really were.
The film is full of faux feminist platitudes, with Hogancamp yelling "Women are the saviors of the world," in one particularly patronizing moment, but Hogancamp objectifies women to an unhealthy degree, becoming creepily obsessed with his attractive new neighbor Nicol (Leslie Mann) without ever really getting to know her. Hogancamp doesn't care about Nicol as a person, only as a fantasy ideal, and when he purchases a doll that resembles her it's the breaking point of this narrative, any sympathy we might have had for Hogancamp's situation quickly eroding. Witnessing his cold treatment of Roberta (Merritt Wever), a store clerk who clearly adores him but fails to meet his physical ideals, I uncomfortably found myself wanting to give him a beating myself.
Hogancamp's retreat from reality into a misogynistic fantasy world is simply impossible to get behind, especially as it mirrors the very modern and very dangerous phenomenon of adult men who refuse to put away childish things. Rather than denouncing a cruel American healthcare system that casts aside men like Hogancamp, "Welcome to Marwen" encourages its protagonist's unhealthy delusions, and in turning the unstable imaginings of a mentally damaged man into mainstream entertainment, it's the year's most morally reprehensible film. I'm going to give "Welcome To Marwen" a 2 out of 10.