Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Review: "Welcome to Marwen"

“Welcome to Marwen” is a strange and wonderful cinematic experience. It just may not be for you. Its combination of whimsy, tragedy and disturbing behavior isn’t going to be everyone’s bag.

I’m reminded of “Lars and the Real Girl,” which people seemed to take either as a quirky gem or utterly bewildering. If you’re in the former camp, my guess is you’ll take to “Marwen” as well.

Let’s just lay it out there: this is the tale of a damaged man who has built an elaborate replica of a fictional World War II Belgium village in his background, which he has populated with custom dolls that he arranges into various scenes and then photographs. Also, he likes wearing women’s stiletto heels.

If that description is off-putting to you, maybe toddle along your way now, without judgment. For the rest, we can get down to appreciating a film that’s decidedly off the beaten path.

It’s based on the true story of Mark Hogancamp (Steve Carell), an artist from upstate New York. He used to be an illustrator for comic books and stuff, but he was beaten to a pulp by five thugs after an encounter in a bar because they thought he was gay. Mark isn’t -- in fact he has a (possibly more than) healthy appreciation for the female form -- but he also has a thing for women’s high heels, and drunkenly let that slip.

As the story opens Mark is physically recovered from his injuries, but the mental and spiritual scars are still wide open. Nearly all of his memories prior to the attack have been wiped clean, and he can no longer draw or barely even write.

The dolls are clearly a cathartic exercise for him. Captain Hoagie, the heroic Army Air Service pilot who was shot down near Marwen, looks just like him. In his little vignettes, Hoagie is often captured and assaulted by Nazis, in a clear recreation of his own trauma. He even has a scar over one eye, as Mark does. But the Women of Marwen, an assortment of lovely resistance fighters, always arrive to save the day.

All of the Women are based on real people in his life. Caralala (Eiza Gonzalez) is a Latina based on a co-worker at the bar (which is also where he was assaulted). Anna (Gwendoline Christie) is the Russian caregiver who brings medicine and stern lectures. Roberta (Merritt Wever) runs the local hobby shop where he buys much of his materials. Suzette (Leslie Zemeckis) is an actress and showboat.

Oh, and there’s also an ancient resident witch named Deja Thoris (Diane Kruger) who flies and has magical powers. In Mark’s world, all the girls are attracted to Hoagie, but Deja has jealously laid claim to his affections, which he chastely refuses.

The doll sequences are marvelous, with Carell and company rendered into plastic-y shapes through CGI. We feel transported into another world, which has heft and authenticity despite the cartoonish quality.

A trio of events loom to turn Mark’s world upside down. A show of his artwork his about to open. The men who nearly killed him are due to be sentenced, and the lawyers want him there to confront them, which petrifies him. And a beautiful and kind woman, Nicol (Leslie Mann), moves in across the street and offers friendship. She is soon added to the Women.

This is perhaps Carell’s most sensitive performance to date. It’s odd to think that just a handful of years ago we regarded him as a goofy TV comedian. He plays Mark as a man who is wandering and lost, but knows he needs to keep moving forward. He will take many wrong turns, and we feel his pain as our own.

Director Robert Zemeckis, who co-wrote the script with Caroline Thompson, strikes a difficult balance in tone. We feel sympathy for Mark, but we’re sometimes a little scared by him, too. He’s childlike in his affections, and the women are careful to encourage his creativity without enforcing romantic feelings.

“Welcome to Marwen” is a story of trauma and redemption. We all find ways to cope with our pain. Some are healthy, some are not, some involve traditional therapy, and others take forms that we must invent for ourselves. Art, and movies, are a way.

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