Has there ever been an art form more dedicated to celebrating itself than the American movie? There are songs about songs, and novels about the power of the written word, but they don’t arrive with anything like the regularity of Hollywood productions devoted to celebrating, whether directly or by proxy, the magic of the movies. Robert Zemeckis’ Welcome to Marwen is one such movie. The movie’s protagonist, Mark Hogancamp (Steve Carell), isn’t a movie buff per se. The elaborate World War II tableaux he stages in his upstate New York yard seem more influenced by comic books and pulp novels than their cinematic equivalents. (There’s a good deal more sex and violence in them than the production code of that era allowed.) But where the real Hogancamp, as seen in the documentary Marwencol, told his stories through still photographs, Zemeckis, working from a script he wrote with Caroline Thompson, sweeps the audience fully inside them.
In fact, we meet Hogie, Mark’s scale-model alter ego, well before we meet Carell’s flesh-and-blood version.* In Mark’s fantasies, he’s a bomber pilot shot down over Belgium who takes refuge in Marwen, a rustic town populated by a bevy of buxom, statuesque women, each of whom is modeled after a person he knows in real life: his co-worker at the local bar (Eiza González), the owner of the hobby shop downtown (Merritt Wever), and eventually his neighbor Nicol (Leslie Mann), who moves in across the street after leaving her belligerent boyfriend (Neil Jackson). There’s an obvious wish-fulfillment component to Mark’s stories, in which a more forthright and cocksure version of himself gets fawned over by an endless succession of perfect, plastic females. But his fantasies can turn dark, too. The town is menaced by a witch named Deja Thoris (Diane Kruger), a capricious figure with a severe acid-green bob who can make any of Marwen’s residents disappear at will with a wave of her gloved hands. The town is also, less fancifully, plagued by roving patrols of Nazi soldiers, who beat and torture Hogie until he’s rescued.
Marwen’s Nazis are proxies for the men who savagely beat Mark in real life, kicking him nearly to death and inflicting permanent brain damage that wiped out all of his memories from before the attack. Photographs are all he has left to remind him that he was once married, that he served in the Navy, that he had a life before his was nearly taken. So he makes himself a world in which he’s strong and capable, incorporating his rehab instructor (Janelle Monáe) and his home health aide (Gwendoline Christie), a world in which evil men wear their bad intentions on their sleeves and we all know who wins in the end.
The real Mark Hogancamp’s town was made of reclaimed plywood and cast-off junk, a form of ad hoc therapy he started after Medicaid stopped paying for his treatment. Those economic details fall away in the film (as they so often do), and his miniatures gain some production value. But that’s nothing compared with what happens when we enter Marwen itself. Zemeckis, who flushed away the better part of a decade on the ghastly motion-capture cul-de-sacs of The Polar Express, Beowulf, and A Christmas Carol, deploys the same technology in Mark’s fantasy world, so instead of seeing dolls come to life, we’re seeing humans reduced to doll form. Rather than being repurposed Barbies, Welcome to Marwen’s figures have the voices and plasticized faces of the people they’re based on, which gives the arrangement just the faintest whiff of a serial killer’s lair. Perhaps that’s why the movie’s Mark has been so thoroughly desexed, with Carell playing him as a soft-voiced naïf who’s barely more than an emotional child. Like the real Hogancamp, Carell’s Mark takes solace in cross-dressing, believing that wearing women’s shoes connects him to their feminine “essence.” (It seems to be one of the few aspects of his personality to survive the attack: When he came home from the hospital, he found a closet full of hundreds of pairs of heels.) But despite watching enough porn to base a doll on his favorite adult actress, the movie’s Mark might as well have a crotch of smooth, featureless plastic. (Movie Mark is apparently also a big fan of past Zemeckis movies: Deja Thoris’ time machine, which in real life is made from a dismantled VCR, is, in this movie, patterned on Doc Brown’s flying DeLorean.)
For decades, Robert Zemeckis was a master of expressive visual effects: The knitted timelines of the Back to the Future series, Roger Rabbit’s fusion of live action and animation, and Contact’s cosmos-spanning visions were stunning not just as technical achievements but for the way they told a story. (He was arguably the first filmmaker to use digital imagery to say more than “Look what I can do!”) But somewhere along the way, he disappeared inside his own computer-generated worlds, and he’s never re-emerged. Welcome to Marwen is a tragedy, not because of how Mark’s story ends, but because it’s the work of a filmmaker who’s never been more sure of his craft, and never less connected to anything resembling actual human experience. The movie’s underlying theme is that fantasy is an escape from the real world that can help people return to it, but it doesn’t seem like Zemeckis is ever coming back.
Correction, Dec. 20, 2018: This article originally misspelled the name of Mark Hogancamp’s doll alter ego, Hogie