I resisted it! I didn’t wanna like it! I was told by Film Twitter that Dear Evan Hansen was the next Cats, and for some fucking reason I believed it. And while the movie is no West Side Story, I genuinely enjoyed myself. I genuinely liked Dear Evan Hansen. No, it’s not perfect, and a lot of choices are very silly/awful, but I can’t imagine anyone on the production was tasked with digitally removing CGI buttholes that someone thought were necessary to make in the first place, so this is far from Cats. For the record, I don’t think I hate Cats as much as I did when I tendered my review way back when. Just James Corden. That guy I hate, but Cats was just a baffling adaptation of a bad show. Hardly anything to get mad about.
Dear Evan Hansen is a somewhat baffling adaptation of a show I haven’t seen, but can assume is pretty good, based on its Tony wins and the fact that I liked the movie despite the movie. Most of this has to do with the performances (Ben Platt is STAGGERING), but a lot of it has to do with the fact that the plot is very similar to World’s Greatest Dad, one of the darkest comedies ever made, and a personal favorite. In Dad, Robin Williams plays a failed writer whose absolute monster of a son accidentally hangs himself while masturbating. Even though he legitimately hates his son (the son is portrayed as 100% terrible), he decides to stage the death as a suicide to save face. One thing leads to another, and soon he’s stuck in a lie involving the successful publication of journal entries, “written by” the deceased boy.
In Dear Evan Hansen, our titular neuroses-laden teen is accidentally drawn into the story of a classmate who recently took his own life. As an exercise in self-assurance prescribed by his psychiatrist, Evan writes himself a letter every day. One of these letters, through no fault of Evan’s, is mistaken as being written by the deceased. Soon after, through some fault of Evan’s, the charade he must maintain as the “one friend” of a suicidal bully gets out of hand very quickly. Where Evan’s plight differs from the protagonist of World’s Greatest Dad is in his intentions. Whereas the latter is drawn into trouble almost entirely by ego, Evan is drawn in by the comfort his faux friendship offers a community in mourning. It’s much less selfish, and even when Evan benefits from the situation, his gains feel less ooky in execution than they do in conception.
I’m told by my fellow critics that the material is “trauma porn” and that it irresponsibly plays in the sandbox of mental illness/neurodivergence, but I just don’t have the energy to field stuff like that anymore. Criticisms of this flavor are often just a way to dismiss a movie before even engaging with it, and doing so in such a way that the critic receives no pushback, lest the pusherbacker be deemed a villain. I’m all for standing in solidarity with the mentally ill (a community of which I am a member) but until you can actually quantify the damage you claim this movie will cause, you can save it.
M*A*S*H* “played in the sandbox” of the Korean War and I don’t hear anyone complaining about the piles of bodies sitting under every Radar O’ Reilly gag.
Watching Dear Evan Hansen, I was fully aware of the emotional strings being pulled (cuz in musicals, characters tend to tell you quite directly how they are feeling at all times — it’s how the machine works), but I found myself moved nonetheless. Yeah, it’s hammy as all hell, and direct to the point of being on the nose, but by the time Julianne Moore was singing about how hard and rewarding it is to be a single mother, my tears were flowing.
And that’s really where this movie succeeded most for me: the performances. Everyone is quite good. Everyone seems fully aware of the difference between stage acting and screen acting, and all work to find a sweet middle ground. It’s a weird place to be, but everyone acquits themselves quite well given the fact that the source material isn’t really the best choice for a film adaptation in the first place. There’s very little by way of dance numbers, so many of the songs consist of the actors singing directly into camera while standing still. It’s just not a good fit. Luckily for us, most of the cast can sing quite well. Ben Platt, who originated the role on Broadway can fuckin SING. Holy hell, the pipes on this kid. I get why they didn’t recast his role despite his age. You neeeeed that voice (and as I understand it, the music was composed specifically for him and his range).
And let me be the first and probably last to say that Platt, despite being in his late twenties, is a very believable 17-year-old. His brow is a little more furrowed than a teen’s would be, but he’s such a skinny little puke that it works. His body language is spot the hell on, and since every other teen is played by a twenty-something as well, it’s fine.
There are attempts to validate the adaptation by doing fun things with each song, but they only work in fits and starts. One number, in which one of the faux letters is being sung by the dead teen (played wonderfully by Colton Ryan, who the movie could’ve used so much more of), keeps restarting as the details of the letter change. It’s played for laughs and it’s a lot of fun. Another sequence, in which a video of Evan speaking at a memorial goes viral, is depicted in the most groan-worthy, cliched montage I’ve ever seen.
And that’s the rub of Dear Evan Hansen: for every moment that hits hard, there’s another that is unintentionally comical. The fun of the movie was bouncing between honest-to-god tears and rolling my eyes with laughter. So yeah, it’s a good time at the movies, even if it’s about twenty minutes too long.
- I appreciated the sequence that shows how rabidly addicted to outrage Internet hacktivists can be.
- Amandla Stenberg is one of the most exciting young performers out there. I will watch her in anything, no matter what. Yes, I saw that movie where she’s the girl in the bubble.
- I don’t remember a single song from the movie. All were good in the moment, but none have any staying power. This is similar to In The Heights in that way.
- While I’m happy I’ve never broken a bone, I do feel like I missed out on the rite of passage of having someone sign my cast. If I broke my arm now, I am sure one of my friends would draw a dick on it.
- The way the plot shakes out, despite being truly nuts, is EXACTLY HOW THIS WOULD PLAY OUT IN REAL LIFE.
Directed by Steven Chbosky
Written by Steven Levenson, Justin Paul, Benj Pasek
Starring Ben Platt, Julianne Moore, Kaitlyn Dever, Amy Adams
Rated PG-13, Runtime 137 minutes (that’s too many minutes)