Robert Zemeckis’s Welcome to Marwen is “based on a true story” about upstate New Yorker Mark Hogancamp, who, after being attacked and left severely damaged in 2000, concocted his own fantasy life through craft projects that won attention from the Manhattan art world. Zemeckis’s $39 million budget refashions Hogancamp’s dollhouse constructions using state-of-the-art digital animation (billed as “Augmented Reality”) that gives “family movie” gloss to a film that presses issues about diversity, sexual identity, bigotry, toxic masculinity, and the good ol’ indomitable human spirit. Waving a social-justice warrior banner makes it Hollywood’s biggest indie movie yet.
In a 2010 documentary about Hogancamp, issues ranging from sanity and memory to trauma, recovery, his complicated married life, and the peculiarity of imagination were more fascinating than the criminal assault that altered his life. Modern Hollywood isn’t good at exploring individual consciousness, but Zemeckis’s usual emphasis on special effects and maudlin emotion might be worse. Augmented Reality keeps replacing Hogancamp’s story with distracting technological fluff (it’s as bright and delicate-looking as a Barbie commercial) which actually insults the seriousness of his condition.
Zemeckis’s dependence on the hardware of Hollywood production has dulled what used to be exhilarating in his best films (the comedies I Wanna Hold Your Hand, Used Cars, and Back to the Future). Motivated by effects, he misrepresents Hogancamp’s mental state in the style of action figures. Moving back and forth from Hogancamp’s lonely bachelor make-believe to derring-do fantasy with Barbie Doll figurines, Zemeckis pretends to access the man’s imagination. The dolls take on the facial movements and voices of human actors, yet are modeled to maintain plastic contours and vinyl sheen.
Technocrat Zemeckis forgets that the childhood wonder of fantasizing must feel and look real. If not, we’re distant from it — outside the imaginative vision of the mind’s eye. That’s why all the expensive technology and “augmented” truth becomes patronizing — no longer childlike but psychotic. The dignity of Hogancamp’s personal escape, and the tragedy of a man being reduced to a child’s state, is betrayed.
This approach also misuses the audience’s adult sophistication and does so in ways that are too typical of modern Hollywood liberalism. Welcome to Marwen pushes social-justice warrior buttons: “It’s a hate crime pain and simple,” Hogancamp (sensitively played by Steve Carell — surprise!) is told by his new neighbor, squeaky-voiced, doll-like Nicol (Leslie Mann) who excites his romantic longing. Hogancamp’s black attorney, who encourages him to attend the court sentencing of his attackers, explains “This is a hate crime. Understand you’re a suffering being.” So Welcome to Marwen is all about achieving “justice,” the fetish word of millennial activists and manipulative media.
Hogancamp’s struggle is portrayed as a social-justice-warrior metaphor. His fantasy world, Marwen, is portmanteau of himself and his ex-wife Wendy. His gratitude toward and dependence on women shows in his doll collection, a squad of bad-ass females who defend Marwen against marauding Nazis. Hogancamp explains his World War II fixation in new liberal terms: “It’s the war where we were the good guys.” (However, he sees an actual, devalued Purple Heart medal on sale at a collector’s shop for $39.95.) He defends his feminist army saying “Women are the saviors of the world!” So this is a #TimesUp movie, too.
Oddly, when Nicol asks Hogancamp about the collection of women’s shoes he likes to wear, he responds “I wouldn’t call it a fetish, I call it a woman’s essence. When I wear them it connects me to the essence of dames.” That 2010 documentary by Jeff Malmberg, actually avoided exploring Hogancamp’s transvestism. Although Zemeckis and screenwriter Caroline Thompson use it for #MeToo points, they fudge his sexuality by emphasizing Hogancamp’s attraction to Nicol as a heterosexual impulse (a soft-spoken proposal scene is a career peak for both Carell and Mann). So, despite all the transgressive Barbie-drag pretense, this is really a heteronormative flick. That’s how conservative viewers might be tricked into accepting its mawkishness.
Welcome to Marwen’s progressive ideas are undercut by Hollywood revenge fantasy in violent, gun-toting battle scenes that imagine revolt — a Nazi in a church steeple is the first battle target. And yet, when Hogancamp uses a porn film to research a doll’s bodacious manner, it prompts a libidinous Nazi phantom that leaves him frightened and impotent. (Zemeckis clearly has a #PunchANazi fixation.) The complexity of human sexuality is too much to handle properly in family movie propaganda.
It is the ultimate liberal delusion to seek remedy through art — which is the essence of propaganda. Welcome to Marwen treats a tragedy in simplistic, “heartwarming” terms that encourage audiences to see human difference only in terms of social good. It is ironic to see a multi-million-dollar Hollywood production argue that therapy is art. Welcome to Marwen turns real hurt into cheap sentiment.