Jeff Malmerg’s homespun, ragged 2010 documentary “Marwencol” told the story of Mark Hogancamp, a man left brain-damaged by a vicious assault whose strange crafts project—fashioning a mini-town with figurines representing his friends that he posed in lurid wartime narratives from which he took evocative photographs—not only helped in his mental rehabilitation but earned him artistic recognition. It was very well received. Similar approbation is unlikely to accrue to Robert Zemeckis’ special-effects laden adaptation of Hogancamp’s story, which is designed to be uplifting but comes across instead as seriously misguided.
One does have to give Zemeckis and his co-writer Caroline Thompson some credit for not airbrushing Hogancamp’s past. He admits that he was before the attack not only an accomplished illustrator but a heavy drunker—he says that the assault beat the desire to drink out of him—and that he drunkenly told his attackers of his habit of wearing high heels, feeding their bigotry in the process. None of that, of course, could possibly justify their horrendous act—which late in the film is depicted in a spookily hallucinatory montage—but at least the facts surrounding the deed are not ignored.
The result was that Hogancamp, as portrayed by Steve Carell, became a traumatized figure, but here also a saintly, Forrest Gumpish one. All memory of his life before the attack lost, and living alone in a ramshackle house filled with dolls he imagines coming to life (as well as a closet filled with high-heeled shoes), Hogancamp is visited occasionally by Anna (Gwendoline Christie), a pushy caregiver who delivers his medication, but apparently is not regularly seeing a therapist (in the documentary, that was the result of his financial straits after his Medicare support ran out, though it’s not explained here). What he does have are friends, including bar owner Larry (Eric Keenleyside), who’s given him a job; Larry’s waitress (Eiza González); and Roberta (Merritt Wever), the supportive owner of the hobby shop where he buys the accoutrements for Marwen, the tiny village he’s constructed in his yard.
The town is supposedly a Belgian hamlet during World War II, in which the figurine of Hoagie (voiced by Carell), an American pilot downed by the Germans, lives along with a passel of gorgeous, kick-ass women—Anna (Christie), Roberta (Wever), Caralala (González), Mark’s rehab instructor (Janelle Monáe), aka G.I. Jane, and Suzette (Leslie Zemeckis), a sultry actress who’s Mark’s favorite porn star. To these will be added Nicol (Leslie Mann), modeled after the sweet redhead who’s moved in across the street from Hogancamp—and whom he immediately becomes infatuated with, going so far as to propose to her.
Unfortunately, Nicol is still being harassed by her one-time boyfriend Kurt (Neil Jackson), an aggressive jerk who will become the model for a German officer leading a bunch of Nazis—including Ludwig Topf (Falk Hentschel)—who target (and torture) Hoagie (until he’s rescued by the women) in the scenarios he devises and photographs. All of this happens under the direction of Deja Thoris (Diane Kruger), a malevolent sorceress who has powers over the death-and-renewed-life of the figurines, as well as time-travel (in a device that looks like the DeLorean from Zemeckis’ “Back to the Future,” an easy in-joke that sours as soon as it’s shown).
Zemeckis, a long-time fan of special-effects and stop-motion visuals, uses those techniques extravagantly here; from the opening scene of Hoagie being shot down and threatened by the Nazis, much of the film is devoted to the Marwen story sequences, in which Carell and much of the cast appear as animated plastic figures. How the actual Hogancamp visualized his stories was, of course, left to the viewer’s imagination in “Marwencol,” but here it’s all spelled out with heavy-handed specificity. There are, frankly, way too many of these animated scenes; they grow increasingly repetitious, even though there are occasional moments of mordant humor that you have to appreciate among the pulpish action-oriented ones.
The purely live-action footage, unfortunately, isn’t an appreciable improvement. Carell works desperately to make Mark a sadly sympathetic character, and he succeeds to a point; but there’s a forlorn doggedness to his performance, an almost pleading quality, that’s ultimately rather exhausting. So are Mann’s saccharine perkiness and the smarmy nastiness of Jackson. Some of the supporting figures are more natural, like Wever’s likable clerk, and their occasional interventions actually provide a refreshing change to the more studied goings-on.
Of course, the special effects are expertly done, but in a style that’s most notable for its strangeness than anything else. The figurines are meant to have a somewhat creepy look, of course, but that doesn’t make them any easier to watch at such inordinate length. Still, you have to admire the fastidious production design of Stefan Dechant and the luminous cinematography of C. Kim Miles.
To close things on a positive note, Thompson and Zemeckis contrive a finale that brings together a slew of plot threads on a single day—Mark’s overcoming his terror at the thought of facing his attackers, the real-life Nazis, and, at the urging of the prosecutor (Conrad Coates), steeling himself to present a victim’s statement at their sentencing hearing; the exhibition of his photographs at a trendy New York gallery; and the halting beginnings of a romance with Roberta. (The Nicol-Kurt part of the story, on the other hand, is pretty much left hanging.) It’s only the most egregious instance of how Zemeckis has taken a poignantly unsettling true-life story of a man’s struggle against PTSD and turned it into a cloying fable of overcoming all obstacles, overstuffed with the special effects he so obviously adores.