‘Welcome to Marwen’ Review: Playing With Toys and Putting Away Childish Things

“Welcome to Marwen” is about a grown man who plays with toys. That’s what it looks like Mark Hogancamp is doing, anyway. His house in Kingston, N.Y., is full of dolls, action figures and accessories arranged into a make-believe Belgian village he has named Marwen. In Mark’s fantasy world — which frequently comes to jarring digital life onscreen — his G.I. Joe-like alter ego, a hard-boiled, hard-plastic American soldier known as Hogie, does battle with Nazis, aided by a revolving cast of women with Barbie-doll physiques.

Or maybe Jessica Rabbit is a better reference, since this is a movie by Robert Zemeckis, who puts some of his longstanding preoccupations on vivid, sometimes baffling display. Mark, suffering from a brain injury in the aftermath of a vicious assault, is at once a charming eccentric, a tormented soul and a brilliantly inventive artist. Marwen is his escape, his therapy and his complex multimedia masterwork. Mark’s bigger-than-life photographs of Hogie’s adventures are exhibited in New York galleries. His sophistication is inseparable from his sincerity, something that might be said of Zemeckis, too.

It might be a stretch to say that Mark, played by Steve Carell, is the director’s surrogate. There is a real Mark Hogancamp, whose life and work are the subject of a lovely 2010 documentary by Jeff Malmberg. (It’s called “Marwencol.” To explain the difference between the titles would be a minor spoiler.)

[Read about the real Mark Hogancamp.]

Zemeckis’s version is partly a story of indomitability in the face of hardship and partly a lesson in the practice of kindness. Mark’s resilience is impressive, as is the gentle respect he is shown by friends, neighbors and co-workers. But what makes the movie interesting — and disturbing on a few different levels — is how its sentimental, inspirational elements do battle with darker impulses.

This isn’t just a matter of the act of violence that explains Mark’s condition. As a sentencing hearing approaches for his assailants, we see fragments of the attack, which is recreated in Marwen. Hogie, like Mark, has a scar on his face, and the German soldiers who harass him are avatars for the guys who beat him up, one of whom has a swastika tattooed on his arm.

The beating left Mark, who had been a gifted illustrator, unable to draw, and wiped out most of his memories. A scrapbook provides some evidence of his talent, and also clues about his past, which included a marriage, a divorce and a lot of drinking.

Some of what we learn about his life explains what happens in Marwen. Hogie’s “dames” are based on women he knows. They include Caralala (Eiza González), who works at the bar where Mark was attacked; Anna (Gwendoline Christie), the nurse who brings his groceries and medications; G.I. Julie (Janelle Monáe), a physical therapist who helped him recover; Roberta (Merritt Wever), who works in the hobby shop where he buys Marwen gear; and Suzette (Leslie Zemeckis, the director’s wife) an actress he has seen in pornographic films. When Mark develops a crush on his new neighbor, Nicol (Leslie Mann), he adds a new character.

There is one woman in Marwen whose flesh-and-blood analogue we don’t see, though she doesn’t seem to be entirely allegorical. Her name is Deja, her voice and likeness are supplied by Diane Kruger, and she is a witch whose destructive power can cross the boundary from fantasy into reality. Even though Marwen is governed by Mark’s will, he is at Deja’s mercy, which makes her (among other things) an intriguing metaphor for the ways art can exceed — or even defy — the intentions of its maker.

That means she’s a crucial figure in “Welcome to Marwen,” a film that is at once compulsive in its application of craft and barely in control of its themes and implications. Zemeckis’s baby boomer nostalgia — the backward-looking embrace of Americana that makes “Forrest Gump,” “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” and the “Back to the Future” movies both charming and reactionary — is at full throttle. The sexual subtexts, which aren’t always so sub-, range from sweetly kinky to mildly creepy to downright gross. And the emotional effects are as startling, and confusing, as their visual counterparts.

Zemeckis has mapped more geography in the uncanny valley than most filmmakers. He feels most at home in a world where human and virtual realities commingle and collide, and he uses digitally generated imagery with wit and feeling. The toy action sequences in “Welcome to Marwen” have a demented precision, an insistence on verisimilitude that reflects Mark’s obsessive ingenuity. The real-world scenes, though, are stylized in a way that muddies the perspective. It’s as if a Wes Anderson movie got stuck inside a Tim Burton movie that the cast has been told is a television sitcom.

I don’t mean that in a bad way. Or not entirely. There is not much in this movie that feels authentic or fully realized, but its very strangeness makes it hard to forget or dismiss. Carell is a charming, maddening enigma, mawkish and mannered but always, somehow, a magnet for empathy. Do we ever get to know Mark Hogancamp? Not really. Not here. But still, that guy playing so intently with his toys might be onto something profound, even if you can’t quite figure out what he’s up to. I’m talking about Robert Zemeckis.

Welcome to Marwen

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Welcome to Marwen
Rated PG-13. Not exactly kids’ stuff. In English, German and French, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 56 minutes.

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