Welcome to Marwen review: Steve Carell on icky form in straightwashed misfire

Robert Zemeckis tries too hard to sentimentalise Mark Hogancamp’s story, meaning what might have been a complicated drama plays like a dud Forrest Gump

The remarkable career of artist and photographer Mark Hogancamp has been turned into an elaborate and misjudged movie of baffling pass-agg ickiness and pointlessness. It sentimentalises a story already told in Jeff Malmberg’s award-winning 2010 documentary Marwencol – and it plays to Steve Carell’s terrible weakness as an actor. He can play great comedy or irony, as in Anchorman, and he can be brilliant in a really dark role, as in Foxcatcher. But he’s awful when he has to be sweetly life-affirming and adorable.

In 2000, Hogancamp was savagely beaten and left for dead by homophobic bigots outside a bar, after he told them he liked cross-dressing. He miraculously recovered from his coma, though with his memory mostly shot, and then with heroic creativity worked though his fears and transformed his agony into art by building a tiny scale model of a fictional second world war Belgian town called Marwencol in his garden. He then photographed action figures in various poses with Hogancamp himself represented as a GI Joe-type hero, his attackers as the Nazis, and the women who helped him – friends, therapists – as a fierce crew of heroine-avengers who save him from the bad guys. A photographer who lived nearby was fascinated by the intensity and passion of these images; he published an article about them which led to an exhibition and the documentary.

Now, Robert Zemeckis and co-screenwriter Caroline Thompson have come up with a well-meaning movie version, switching between Hogancamp’s ordinary life and the fantasy situation (the town is now just Marwen) with Carell’s face turned into a plasticky Action Man version. The same goes for the toy actors representing his friends, including Janelle Monáe as his physical therapist, Merritt Wever as the hobby shop assistant and most importantly Leslie Mann as Nicol, the romantic interest that Zemeckis’s film invents for him. Diane Kruger plays Deja Thoris, a disturbing evil figure in the miniature made up universe, although she oddly has no real-life equivalent and her existence slightly undermines the film’s pro-women rationale.

From the start, the emotional salute to Hogancamp’s heroism in fact and fiction is laboured and unearned. Despite all the bizarre moments with Nazis, torture and fetishism, Zemeckis earnestly tries to sanitise everything tonally, to remove the Diane Arbus factor, the dysfunctional quality which was undoubtedly a factor in making Hogancamp a hit in the world of contemporary art – a feeling that the Marwencol pictures were the symptom as well as the therapy.

Janelle Monáe, left, as the therapist teaching Steve Carell’s Mark to walk again.
Janelle Monáe, left, as the therapist teaching Steve Carell’s Mark to walk again. Photograph: Universal Pictures/AP

When we are in the real world, there is a wilful naivety. Hogancamp is an ordinary guy in the middle of an ordinary town. But apparently he has an exhibition of his pictures coming up. Roberta, the hobby shop assistant, tells him her cousin is writing the programme notes. So where can this local folksy event be happening? In New York City, that’s where – a glitzy opening showing huge enlargements of his pictures. Someone must have supervised these reproductions, selected the pictures, organised the gallery space, with Hogancamp probably involved. But here, he just exists in a quasi-Forrest Gump seclusion and innocence.

But credit should go to Mann, playing the neighbour and quasi-love interest. For all that her character has been created in the interests of reassuring the audience and normalising and straightwashing the story, she has an excellent moment in the climactic scene when Hogancamp declares his feelings for her. It is the only moment which isn’t straining desperately to achieve something weird-and-wonderfully heartwarming. Mann manages to salvage something from this misfire of a movie.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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