‘Welcome to Marwen’ Review: A Dollhouse of Nightmares Big and Small

In 2010 the documentary Marwencol was released, documenting the life of photographer Mark Hogencamp and the fictional town of Marwencol that he created in his backyard. Marwencol received a lot of attention upon release and Hollywood soon came calling to tell the story narratively. The finished result is Welcome to Marwen, a story that hopes audiences will be seduced by the name of its director, Robert Zemeckis, and its similarities to Forrest Gump. As a disabled critic, the film’s trailers — touting stereotypical disabled words like “inspirational” — left me assuming this would be another in a long line of movies to use disability as “inspiration porn.” Color me shocked when the movie ended up being something far worse. Welcome to Marwen does use disability for its own ends, co-opting it to present its lead as an infantile loner whose creepy obsessions with the women in his life are seemingly charming.

This film’s Hogancamp (played by Steve Carell at his most quiet and muted) is still coping with PTSD and a brain injury after being beaten by a group of men. His only respite is found in the fictional world of Marwen, a Belgium city perpetually in the midst of WWII. Mark’s dolls comment on events in his life and present the world as he wishes it to be, from his alter ego Captain Hogie to the “women of Marwen” who act as Captain Hogie’s army.

Immediately there’s a question about who Welcome to Marwen is aimed at. The trailers, which show dolls coming to life, implies that this is a family picture when it couldn’t be further from the truth. Yes, there’s no sex or cursing, but the film isn’t particularly whimsical or entertaining. A WWII bombing sequence opens the film, as we’re introducing to Captain Hogie as he crash-lands and is accosted by Nazis. A group of gun-toting women show up to save him before we find out it’s actually part of Hogancamp’s elaborate imagination. Zemeckis has played with the interplay of live action and animation for years, with diminishing returns, and the characters here are definite nightmare fuel. Everyone has a waxy appearance like living mannequins. There’s no real embrace of a doll’s qualities in the real world unless it’s narratively convenient — a Nazi ripping off his arm to grab a gun — or meant to spark a chuckle as when Hogie turns his head all the way around.

Carell’s performance is good, but it’s far from his best work. He spends a lot of time either screaming and running away, or spitting out faux-1940s one-liners that are meant to convey how awesome he is. It almost feels like the script, attributed to Zemeckis and Caroline Thompson, saw all the Carrell love on Twitter and ran with it because the movie relies on the idea that people love the actor and in turn will love the character. The real Hogancamp says he doesn’t remember his life before the attack and the script never attempts to give us an idea of who he was beforehand. His life is only relevant for the horrible thing that happened to him that he must overcome, a common trope in narratives about disability. Yet Mark is never presented as disabled. He refers to himself as “different,” mainly because he loves women’s shoes. The year is never defined so it’s unclear if this is a world where trans and transvestism is accepted or even acknowledged yet the script gets a gleeful delight out of putting Mark, either in reality or doll form, in pumps while simultaneously saying “we accept it.” At the same time, the movie doesn’t want to discuss Mark’s sexuality, yet reiterates time and again that he’s heterosexual and, in fact, women love him, particularly the sweet hobby shop clerk, Roberta (Merritt Wever). The marketing is playing up Mark’s need to stand up to his attackers but this amounts to maybe twenty minutes of actual screen-time, with the catharsis not coming from his standing up to them, but finally asking a woman out.

Like another movie from this year, the equally terrible Life Itself, Welcome to Marwen champions the loveable male obsessive and the manic pixie dream girls he wants to control. Carrell is a dear, but it’s hard not to see Hogancamp’s actions as creepy to women and I’m assuming that’s not how they were taken in reality. All the women who are part of his Marwen set — created from dolls that apparently already look like them — take Mark’s comments in stride, actively playing into his fantasies. In the world of Marwen, Hogie is the Charlie to his group of angels, and that comes with a heavy dose of exploitation. The camera shoots up the dolls’ skirts, increases the bust sizes of nearly all the actresses, and at one point Roberta nonchalantly asks why her character is set upon by Nazis and has to run out with no top on. Thank God these dolls lack female-presenting nipples! You know, for kids!

When Nicol (Leslie Mann) moves across the street from Mark, his obsession with her immediately manifests, yet it’s perceived as safer than the seemingly abusive relationship she had with her cop ex which goes nowhere. Mann plays Nicol as sympathetic, but when Mark wants more out of the relationship — apparently something he’s done to other women — the movie plays it as a moment of sadness than the creepy interaction it is. By putting the story in Mark’s hands, the boundaries between he and these women don’t exist, and if they refuse his delusions it’s bad because he feels bad. The actors playing the women all do good work, but their characters are little more than stereotypical Barbie dolls. Mann is the sweet savior, Janelle Monáe‘s GI Julie and Eiza González are the women of color (with the latter in a feisty Latina outfit I’m pretty sure Mattel would be condemned for), and Gwendoline Christie is the mad Russian. These women aren’t people, they’re caricatures, and they’re not acting they’re posing.

Welcome to Marwen doesn’t make you want to learn more about Mark Hogancamp. In fact, it might actively make you think he’s a bit of a jerk. Zemeckis tells a dated story in the most disturbing way possible, yet can’t seem to understand that it’s bad. This is Nice Guy: The Movie, a story about a man who is weird around women, but that’s okay because he’s simple. The movie hijacks tropes established in disabled narratives and uses them to present the idea that people with disabilities — whether physical or mental — can’t be threatening because they’re simple. It’s offensive at best and a dangerous lie at worst. The dolls themselves are interesting, but you’re better off just watching the original documentary. Time to return these toys to the store.

Kristen Lopez: @Journeys_Film Writer, critic, podcaster. You can find my work nearly everywhere. Creator and host of Citizen Dame.