Monday, April 29, 2019

Art Therapy: Welcome to Marwen

Steve Carell and Merritt Wever in Welcome to Marwen.

The almost universal disdain with which Robert Zemeckis’s Welcome to Marwen was met on its Christmas release aroused my curiosity, but by the time I had a chance to check it out it had vanished. There had been no press screenings and though it was award season, no screeners were sent out. One might have thought that Zemeckis’s name or that of Steve Carell, who plays the lead, would have rescued it from its ignominious demise, but I had to wait until it came out on Amazon Prime to catch up with it. And it turns out to be so good that the stench around it seems like a bad joke. It’s based on the true story of Mark Hogencamp, who was attacked in 2000 by five men at a bar in his hometown in northern New York and abandoned for dead; he survived, but his memory was wiped and he had severe PTSD. His strategy for dealing with it was to construct a doll village on his property that he called Marwencol in which the characters, mostly versions of Mark and women friends from his life after the attack, are reimagined as Allied warriors of the Second World War holed up in a village in Belgium. Hogancamp became known for his photos of Marwencol – and they provided him with a livelihood. The story is familiar to art-house mavens from Jeff Malmberg’s memorable 2010 documentary Marwencol. What Zemeckis brings to it is real directorial finesse and invention – not to mention Carell, in a sensational performance that’s the best thing he’s done thus far.

You have to hand it to Carell. After the success of The Office and The 40-Year-Old Virgin he could have carved out a happy career in comic vehicles, but instead he’s opted to become a serious actor, and his choices of material have been daring. They haven’t always worked out – he couldn’t surmount the problems in the conception of Vice (where he played Donald Rumsfeld), and it wouldn’t have made much of a difference who got lumbered with the soppy, masochistic part of the teen doper’s dad in Beautiful Boy. And the role of the sinister John du Pont in Foxcatcher, whose obsession with the Olympic hopeful wrestler he bankrolls ends in murder, was too much of reach: the performance wound up being about the feat more than the performance. Still, you had to admire the effort, and there was nothing grandstanding about his acting. And just as often his gambles have paid off – in The Big Short and Last Flag Flying and in his turn as Bobby Riggs in Battle of the Sexes. Carell is drawn to tricky, challenging roles, and he doesn’t tend to repeat himself.

Of the dramatic characters he’s gone after, Mark Hogancamp is the one I’d categorize as the closest to a classic American movie part: a man struggling to recover after having been stripped of some of his most elemental qualities, the center of a triumph-of-the-spirit story. By the time the movie begins, Mark is already famous for his pictures and he’s reconstructed a congenial, if limited, social life, but though he’s repressed memories of the assault and lost everything that preceded it – he had a drinking problem that wound up decimating his marriage after he returned from a stint in the military – they hover over his conscious life like ghosts, unseen but omnipresent. The thought of the men who attacked him, a hate crime motivated by their (inaccurate) perception of him as gay, still makes him tremble and run like a scared rabbit, especially now that the sentencing hearing of his assailants is looming and his lawyer (Conrad Coates) has been urging him to attend, knowing that his presence will make a powerful statement and ensure that they get what they deserve. Carell’s performance is constructed on the idea of a man conditioned to panic and retreat who has to fight through those reactions to face their sources, and Carell draws on his amazing comedian’s instincts to work it through even though the PTSD story isn’t comic, while he draws on a gift for physical and emotional detail to suggest the character’s artistic process. The script by Zemeckis and Caroline Thompson offers up Mark’s doll-village self-therapy as both brilliant and something of a liability. His world is circumscribed by his little neighborhood and the places on his daily route, like the toy store where he picks up his doll supply, run by Roberta (Merritt Wever), his closest friend, and the comic-strip scenarios he enacts with the figures in Marwen (as the village is called in the movie), plus the fact that he has no previous memories of human interactions to draw on, have simplified his view of them. So when a new, attractive neighbor, Nicol (a surprisingly tender and understated Leslie Mann), makes friendly overtures to him, he not only misreads them as romantic but responds in an over-the-top fashion that a twelve-year-old, perhaps, would imagine is appropriate. Carell’s acting has to negotiate this tension, too, between a grown man’s needs and impulses and the imposed limits of his remembered experience of the world.

Zemeckis uses the dolls to dramatize these scenarios, which often pop into Mark’s head when he feels stress from the impending sentencing or, at one point, from an unpleasant encounter with Kurt (Neil Jackson), an aggressive jerk who has been stalking Nicol. In these episodes Mark is a courageous, stoic GI named Cap’n Hogie, his attackers (with whom Kurt is now allied in his head) Nazis, and the women of Marwen, a band of warriors sworn to protect Hogie and the community, all versions of the real-life women he feels safe with – Roberta, his caregiver Anna (Gwendoline Christie), Jules (Janelle Monaé), an army vet with a prosthetic leg who puts him through his paces in rehab, and Carlala (Eiza González) , a cook at his favorite local diner. (The other member of this fantasy quintet, Suzette, played by Zemeckis’s wife Leslie, is Mark’s favorite porn actress.) These sequences are bluntly funny, in the gung-ho manner of old action comic strips: the women are babes and the Nazis are sadists and brutes. The comedy keeps the movie from getting sentimental, a trap Zemeckis and Thompson cleverly evade, at least until the last ten minutes or so of the movie. But Zemeckis uses motion capture for these scenes, so when Zemeckis zooms in for close-ups, we see the actors’ eyes inside the dolls’ faces, and the effect is startling – especially in the death scenes that occasionally punctuate the episodes, where melodrama suddenly takes on the tinge of real loss. Wendy, who found Mark after the attack and saved his life by getting him to the hospital, is the “wen” in “Marwen" since she got married and moved away, she Mark has lost contact with her, he has memorialized her by making her one of the casualties. It’s implied that he fell for her just as he falls for Nicol, who becomes the latest model for the Marwen cast of characters.

The subplot around Nicol’s stalker Kurt doesn’t have a dénouement, though the one I thought it was heading towards, where Mark rescues her from him, would have violated one of the movie’s central ideas, that he hasn’t yet learned to distinguish between real life and his doll-inhabited fantasies. As for his romantic life, the film leaves us with the possibility that he might develop something with Roberta, who has obviously been waiting in the wings. (Merritt Wever’s acting is just right – sweet and pungent in equal measure.) The movie is very satisfying, and as a piece of direction I’d say it’s as good as anything Zemeckis has ever done. It was also one of the few Christmas movies that deserved attention.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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