The success of “Dear Evan Hansen” on Broadway makes it exceptionally clear that there is something in the story and the songs and the production (and everything else) that speaks to an audience. It is inarguable. Never having seen the musical performed live, I cannot be definitive about what people love about the show, but I can state that whatever it is does not translate to the filmic version, at least not in any manner that makes it worth one’s time.
Front and center in the film is Ben Platt, who won a Tony for his role as Evan Hansen on Broadway. Much has already been made on the internet of him not being the right choice for the part here in the movie due to his age. It is certainly true that he does not look like a high school student, but I do not wish to relitigate that here. Casting people who don’t look right for the part is a long tradition of movies and television and theater and… well, you get the point. The problem is not that Platt doesn’t look right, it’s that so much of what Evan does is incomprehensible. Or, more accurately, that so much of what Evan does when he’s not singing is incomprehensible. Platt’s performance of Benj Pasek & Justin Paul’s songs is tremendous; he absolutely makes us feel horrible.
This last seems to be the main takeaway of the movie – Evan Hansen has, not for reasons under his control, had a very difficult life and it continues to be difficult. Amongst other problems, he is severely depressed and painfully shy. Platt’s portrayal comes off as theatrical in speech and mannerisms, but in song it is powerful and true. The songs where everything really works are insanely sad ones and the audience is left oscillating between boredom (no songs) and deep upset (songs).
These two emotional points are a difficult place to have viewers yo-yo and are completely at odds with Stephen Chbosky direction of Steven Levenson’s screenplay (Levenson also wrote the book for the musical). Chbosky presents us with a distinctly simulated environment. There is no moment when Hansen’s world feels like a real place inhabited by actual human beings.
There are moments of the film that feel impossible to have done on stage (existing as they do on computers). These often play out like the most bland advertisements for Zoom and social networks one can imagination and when they turn negative, they again do so in the most broad, indistinct, manner. There is nothing unique or appealing to such segments, even when they exist to show us the good in the world.
The sets are lifeless. There is an antiseptic nature to them. They feel unlived in and unloved. Watching the characters exist in them, one gets the sense that they are within a model home, trying to work out what a day might feel like within a space that is not actually theirs. The clothes feel like someone’s idea of what might be worn in a suburban neighborhood based upon the commercials of various clothing lines. It is a world designed to make everything feel “normal” with the movie seeming to offer the sense to the audience that it is abundantly clever for being able to peel back this veneer to show the truth within – that we all struggle.
It doesn’t do that. It just turns into something offensive in its blandness.
The huge message of the movie seems to be that we need to recognize that everyone is dealing with their own stuff, and that’s undeniably true and important, but the delivery is lacking. Evan Hansen is a character who lies about being friends with a kid at his school who committed suicide. He does this to get close to the deceased’s sister, on whom he has a crush. It is true, as stated earlier, that Evan has some real issues of his own, but ingratiating yourself to a dead kid’s immediate family by lying to them about your relationship to the deceased is a bridge too far. You can’t cover that with “well, everyone has stuff that they’re dealing with that we don’t know anything about.”
As a movie, “Dear Evan Hansen” very much wants us to care for the lead character and like him while giving us no reasonable way past his horrific behavior. It is untenable.
We have somehow reached the conclusion of this review without my noting the supporting cast, which is actually a pretty good one and includes: Amy Adams, Julianne Moore, Kaitlyn Dever, Colton Ryan, Amandla Stenberg, Danny Pino, and Nik Dodani. For better or worse, they all fit the film’s overall feel of simulacrum. They are given just enough to do and just enough emotional breakdowns so that we understand that they are playing real types of people. Of course, the characters are actually included in very well defined roles which exist to prop up the lead character. We may all be different and have our own things going on, but one very much gets the sense that the whole world of “Dear Evan Hansen” exists because Evan Hansen exists and if he ceased to be, so would it. It is a fantasy constructed for him.
If nothing else, “Dear Evan Hansen” makes me supremely interested in just how the Broadway show plays out. I am hugely curious to see it so that I might better understand how it turned into such a phenomenon. Watching the movie, it is difficult to imagine.
photo credit: Universal Studios