In 2000, a man named Mark Hogancamp was brutally assaulted by five men outside a bar in Kingston, New York. The attack, a hate crime motivated by Hogancamp’s mentioning that he was a cross-dresser, left him comatose and then amnesiac. A 2010 documentary, “Marwencol,” showed his unique method of coping with post-traumatic stress: Hogancamp constructed a Barbie-size World War II Belgian village he named Marwencol, in which he photographed stories of the doll inhabitants — male Allied soldiers and heroic Belgian women — and the menacing Nazis who periodically invaded.
The doc is a great watch.
I can’t say the same for “Welcome to Marwen,” Robert Zemeckis’ gimmicky adaptation. Despite a sympathetic lead performance from Steve Carell, the fictionalized version bogs down in extensive animated doll sequences, so similar they grow increasingly tiresome. Zemeckis’ Barbie squad is initially impressive; each is modeled on a real woman in Mark’s life, including his Russian home nurse (Gwendoline Christie), a physical therapist (Janelle Monáe) and his kindly new next-door neighbor (Leslie Mann). The town’s name, here shortened to Marwen, is a combination of Mark and Wendy, Mark’s former partner.
But the screenplay, by Zemeckis and Caroline Thompson (“City of Ember”), is gratingly obvious, with poor Carell reduced to periodically shouting out dialogue like “I’m tired of being lonely!” and dropping to the floor in melodramatic fits of PTSD-induced hallucination. He wrestles with a pill dependence, whose resolution here is just as eye-rolling (“I’m the only one who can take your pain away,” the doll-personification of his addiction whispers in his ear). Tonally, it’s all over the place: When Mark brought his jeep full of Barbies to his attackers’ court sentencing, people in my audience laughed, though the moment seemed intended as pathos.
Despite the film’s professed reverence for women and their footwear — some of its most touching moments involve Mark and his plastic alter ego, Hoagie, donning pumps — “Marwen” never bothers to bring depth to any of its female characters. Mann’s Nicol has few defining features beyond looking gently puzzled and collecting old teapots.
Zemeckis, caught up in the razzle-dazzle of CGI, can’t resist giving his older work a shout-out: In one animated sequence with a time machine, the vehicle leaves flaming “Back to the Future” tire tracks. Mostly, it’s a depressing reminder that Zemeckis’ heyday may be out of time.