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Welcome to Marwen is a well-meaning effort, but the truth is more colorful and makes more sense.

Bullets Over Belgium

Using dolls to cope with a tragic beating
Using dolls to cope with a tragic beating

This might be one of those movies that’ll take time to fully sink in and appreciate. As in, maybe a few years from now it might be hailed as a remarkable accomplishment. But as it stands, right now, there are some narrative choices that are hard to appreciate.

Marwen starts off like gangbusters. World War II is raging and there’s a dogfight over Belgium. A U.S. plane is shot down, crashing into a field of mud. The pilot hops out, his shoes engulfed in flames. After dousing the fire in mud, he spots an upended car. Inside: a woman’s trunk with personal items and a pair of high-heeled shoes. The pilot scraps his plastic shoes in favor of the more fashionable pair.

The pilot, as it happens, is also plastic. He’s what those in the know would call a “large-size action figure.” He’s 12 inches of plastic posing possibilities. Others, less sophisticated, would simply refer to him as a “doll.”

This whiz-bang opening, with director Robert Zemeckis (Forrest Gump) in fine form, is a highlight. Then the story focuses on more serious subjects; it is, after all, based on a strange true story concerning Mark Hogancamp (Steve Carell, The Big Short). One night, Mark was brutally attacked by a gang of neo-Nazis and left for dead, a crumpled heap on the side of the road.

Embrace the Pain

Following this assault, Mark, who was a terrific illustrator, lost his talent and a huge swath of his memory. As a replacement, he started photographing his fantasy world of action figures and dolls, setting his storyline in a fictional Belgian town called Marwen (a mash-up named after Mark and Wendy, the love of his life — at one point, he was a married man). In this world, Mark is a WWII hero, in the center of all the action and spewing puns and plays on words at Nazis. He is, after all, an “Ameri-can-doer.”

His photographs started to draw attention and this resident of Kingston, New York, was invited to hold a gallery event in New York City. It’s all covered in the 2010 documentary Marwencol and the 2015 book Welcome to Marwencol.

Sometimes truth really is stranger — and quirkier — than fiction. And that’s where Welcome to Marwen struggles the most. It’s certainly a story worth telling — and it’s timely. Mark’s attackers beat him mercilessly all because — after some drunken banter — he confessed to wearing women’s clothes on occasion. Aside from that, he’s a straight man who loves women. For him, wearing women’s clothes is a way of absorbing the female essence.

The problem is, it seems as though Zemeckis, who co-wrote the screenplay with Caroline Thompson (Edward Scissorhands), didn’t have enough faith in the truth and instead added extra drama where none need be injected.

To that end, there’s an unnecessary subplot involving a new neighbor and potential love interest, Nicol (Leslie Mann, Blockers), and her aggressive ex-boyfriend, a former bomb squad member with a hostile demeanor. (Nicol, by the way, is the “col” in the extended village name of Marwencol. In reality, her name is Colleen.)

That’s accompanied by the repeated drone of Mark not wanting to face his attackers prior to their sentencing. He flips out on one occasion, only to have the hearing date postponed — to the same day as his photo exhibit in New York. That’s a thin storyline with an element of drama that goes absolutely nowhere.

Finally, when Mark finally makes a statement in front of the judge, nobody sheds a tear. Nobody, that is, except for his neo-Nazi attackers. Huh? What’s that all about?

The Ruined Stocking

In reality, Mark wasn’t afraid of facing his attackers; he was concerned about how he’d react, though. Maybe he’d try to kill them.

And he was stressed out about the New York City show for a few compelling reasons. Marwen was a purely personal endeavor, one he was reluctant to share with the world at large. He was also nervous about going into the big city in his weakened, post-attack mental state. And, perhaps most importantly, he was stressed over what to wear. He really wanted to wear a chiffon dress.

The town of Marwen is populated with plastic doppelgangers of Mark’s real-life neighbors, shopkeepers, caregivers and friends. And there’s also a bizarre Belgian witch, Deja Thoris (Diane Kruger, Inglourious Basterds), who interferes with Mark’s Marwen-based romances. She ultimately represents the pain medications that do more to rob Mark of his life than to help him cope with it.

Yeah. That’s another storyline embellished for the big screen. In reality, Deja Thoris represents a fantasy, not a threat.

On second thought, maybe this version of Marwen won’t age well. It might be a better choice to simply watch the documentary, Marwencol. It’s enlightening and more clearly defines Mark’s personality and problems without all the baggage of Hollywood-style storytelling.