I regret to report that virtually nothing about “Welcome to Marwen” works. A strange and true tale of a lonely man creating art out of damage has been coated with a thick shell of digital effects and Hollywood treacle by people who should know better. The tone is almost willfully off-putting. The parts that are supposed to be cute could give you the creeps. The film is almost a Platonic ideal of how to take an emotionally transfixing real-life story and get it wrong.
Probably the only right way would be to make a documentary, but someone already did: Jeff Malmberg’s “Marwencol” (2010) remains the clear-eyed tribute to Mark Hogancamp that he and we deserve. You can rent it on iTunes or stream it if you subscribe to Kanopy, Fandor, or Mubi, and you are hereby urged to. “Marwencol” is a wonderful movie. “Welcome to Marwen” is not.
The new film drops us into Hogancamp’s life in media weird, backfilling the details slowly. Mark (Carell) is an upstate New Yorker and artist recovering from a brutal barroom assault in which a group of men beat and kicked him into a coma, from which he emerged with the loss of his memory and his ability to draw. As a form of self-medicated therapy, he has created a miniature World War II village in his backyard, peopled it with modified Barbies and G.I. Joes, and photographed epic sagas of longing and revenge, starring “Captain Hogie” and a cadre of kick-ass women soldiers.
Hogancamp’s photographs — which are stunning — eventually caught the attention of the Manhattan gallery crowd, and Malmberg’s documentary sensibly explores the issue of whether and how Mark is being exploited by his new hipoisie friends. “Welcome to Marwen” just exploits him for feel-good messages of healing that can’t help but feel offensively trite next to the real thing.
Mostly, the new movie realizes Hogancamp’s fantasy life as a lavishly appointed digital other-world in which Mark and his real-life acquaintances come to tough-talking, plastic-jointed, psycho-action life. The director is Robert Zemeckis, who long ago gave us “Back to the Future” (1985) and “Used Cars” (1980) — Jesus, remember “Used Cars”? — and who more recently has been seduced by the promise of motion-capture animation in “The Polar Express” (2004) and “A Christmas Carol” (2009). His approach to Hogancamp’s story reveals a fundamental misunderstanding. Mark’s photographs already are his fantasy’s visualization, and the only visualization that’s needed. Anything else cheapens it.
And renders it disturbing in more than just the uncanny-valley doll simulations. In Mark’s inner narrative, Captain Hogie is protected from the Nazis (i.e., his assailants) by the women of Marwen, all of whom are based on women who care for him in life: his physical therapist (singer Janelle Monae), a waitress friend (Eiza González), the clerk at the local hobby shop (Merritt Wever), a Russian medical technician (Gwendoline Christie of “Game of Thrones”). When a kindhearted divorcee named Nicol (Leslie Mann) moves in across the street, Mark has a new living doll on which to fixate.
Malmberg’s documentary handles these occasional crushes and his friends’ gentle defusing of them with delicacy and tact. (Actually, the documentary handles a lot delicately, including Mark’s fetish for women’s footwear, while never losing sympathy for the touched, touching, and enduring individual at its center.) “Welcome to Marwen” gives us Hogancamp warts and all — the crushes, the impressive shoe collection, the fixation on a 1980s porn star — but the warts are presented as adorable quirks, a la Zemeckis’s biggest hit, “Forrest Gump” (1994) or co-writer Caroline Thompson’s “Edward Scissorhands” (1990).
Those were fictional characters. Mark Hogancamp and his demons are real. “Welcome to Marwen” is made by people who seem to have lost sight of the difference.
So the “romance” between Mark and Nicol is played out at excruciating length, and Nicol’s friendship with her eccentric-to-unnerving new neighbor itself seems far-fetched. (Of course it happened in real life; that “Welcome to Marwen” can’t convince us it could is its failure.) The warrior-babe fantasy that seems so fresh and even empowering in Hogancamp’s photographs curdles into surrealist Mattel hubba-hubba because the script simultaneously sexualizes Mark and neuters him. The Ick Factor laps at this movie’s feet until it floods the room, and no one here seems able to do anything about it.
Least of all Carell. You admire the guy, I admire the guy, but there’s almost no way he can make sense of this movie’s contradictions (or that haircut). The actor has long since successfully branched out of comedy to showcase his full range, yet “Welcome to Marwen” is the first time one of his depressive, soulful sad sacks has felt like schtick.
If you recall the “Tropic Thunder” debate about actors playing mentally impaired characters — sorry, I can’t quote it here — you’ll be relieved to know that Carell doesn’t go the full . . . distance. He still goes further than feels necessary or right, and that itself stands as a well-intentioned insult to a man who’s seen more than enough injury. Avert your eyes. We will not speak of this again.
WELCOME TO MARWEN
Directed by Robert Zemeckis. Written by Zemeckis and Caroline Thompson. Starring Steve Carell, Leslie Mann. At Boston Common, Fenway, Seaport, suburbs. 116 minutes. PG-13 (sequences of fantasy violence, some disturbing images, brief suggestive content, thematic material, and language).