‘Dear Evan Hansen’ Review — An Irredeemably Misguided Musical Disaster

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Dear Evan Hansen Review

I know that musicals aren’t for everyone. Hell, I’m a rather recent convert to the genre, but when a musical is rockin’, there’s little that can beat it. The recent Hollywood musical revival has been, well, a mixed bag. Films like La La Land earn awards, critical acclaim, and box office riches. Films like Cats get mocked to death, lose money for their studio, and have rumors about possible butthole cuts swirling around the internet. Say what you will about Cats or La La Land, they are at least entertaining spectacles, even if the former is mainly because it’s a campy fiasco. Director Stephen Chbosky brings the Tony Award-winning musical Dear Evan Hansen to the big screen and the results are nothing short of disastrous. Dear Evan Hansen is a completely irredeemable piece of work, a smug self-serious musical that somehow is able to trivialize mental illness and suicide.

Evan Hansen (Ben Platt) is an awkward teenager struggling with various mental illnesses, this is telegraphed by the actor’s exaggerated tics and twitching, and punctuated by closeup shots of his prescription meds. He lives with his single mother Heidi (Julianne Moore), who works long shifts as a nurse. Evan has been assigned with a task by his therapist: write a pump-up letter to himself and bring it to his next session. Following a disastrous day at school, Evan makes adjustments to his letter, resigning himself to his insecurities and feelings of helplessness. However, the letter is discovered by Connor Murphy (Colton Ryan), who then takes the letter and keeps it once he sees that his sister Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever) has been mentioned. Evan worries deeply that his personal letter will find its way to the internet. He searches the various social networks to no avail. Days pass and nothing has happened. Then Evan is told what has happened – Connor has killed himself.

It should be stated clear and upfront that Dear Evan Hansen has no interest in Connor as a character. He’s nothing more than a plot device so there’s really no need to give the character any kind of depth. This, too, allows Steven Levenson, adapting his own musical for the screen, to set Dear Evan Hansen’s absolutely insensitive plot underway. Connor’s parents, Cynthia (Amy Adams) and Larry (Danny Pino) discover the letter Connor took from Evan and assume it was a suicide note left to his mysterious best friend. Evan then begins to spin a web of lies to ingratiate himself with this family and their daughter with whom he’s admired from a far. Soon the deathly shy Evan is speaking at his school, and the speech goes viral which then leads to a massive charity drive. Then he gets the girl of his dreams. It eventually unravels, but only for a brief period before we can redeem the eponymous compulsive liar and everyone can live happily ever after…except for, you know, the teenager who killed himself.

One thing that just really stands out about Dear Evan Hansen is just how unconcerned both writer Levenson and director Chbosky are in getting beyond the surface of any of these characters. It’s stated that Connor went to rehab. What was his drug of choice? Eh, no need to mention it. One scene between Evan and the young go-getter Alana (Amandala Stenberg) discussing their various mental issues, yet they don’t truly discuss their issues but mere exchange the names of the medications they take. Dear Evan Hansen is the kind of musical that wants you to think its taking serious issues seriously but can’t be bothered to actually explore the issues. Instead it’s easier to pay lip service to mental health and instead opt for weepy songs as a kind of emotional exploitation, taking broad issues that affect millions but leaving them so ill-defined that the audience has to fill in the blanks.

Much has been made about a fully grown Ben Platt reprising his Tony-winning role as a high schooler for the film. Well, the problem with Platt isn’t his age – it’s only distracting at first, especially when the character’s lament about having no friends elicits the obvious joke, “Because they know you’re an undercover cop.” The problem with Platt’s performance is that he’s overdoing it. All of the tics and mannerisms that worked on the stage don’t work on the screen, and a big reason is that movies have closeups. It’s hard to blame a young actor thinking what won him a Tony on stage wouldn’t work for the screen, but that’s one area where director Stephen Chbosky should’ve worked with his star.

The thing about musicals is you can get away with some crazy plotting and twists if the songs are working, and the songs in Dear Evan Hansen don’t work. The most upbeat number is the most tasteless and the rest are straining in their weepiness. Not only are the songs dull, Stephen Chbosky’s direction is equally uninspired – one of the film’s final songs unfolds in a rudimentary shot/reverse shot. I understand that the material at play in Dear Evan Hansen is tricky, but the creators never really seem to get the razor’s edge they were dancing on to the point where the film is so achingly dull in its earnestly insane emotional manipulation. A musical with a plot as twisted as Dear Evan Hansen shouldn’t be completely devoid of fun, intentional or not.

I haven’t hated a movie as much as I hated Dear Evan Hansen in a long time. Mental illness is real issue that deserves smart, nuanced attention in the arts, but Dear Evan Hansen is not a smart, nuanced piece of art. It’s an exploitative piece of tedium, somehow earnest in its insane intent while being condescending to the point of being insulting. Don’t kid yourself into thinking that Dear Evan Hansen is going to be some kind of camp classic a la Cats. It’s not. Instead, this is a completely joyless exercise in cinematic musical that drags on and on for well over two hours. I love movies and music of questionable taste, but the deranged qualities of Dear Evan Hansen falls into a nefarious category of exploitation and trivialization that wants to be lauded for its condescending lip service. Dear Evan Hansen is utterly without redeeming social value.

 

 

Dear Evan Hansen
  • Overall Score
0.5

Summary

A loathsome movie that exploits mental illness and suicide, Dear Evan Hansen is a unique kind of musical misfire. It’s an insane story from start to finish yet its insanity never veers into camp or kitsch, leaving the viewer to sit through an overlong and insulting story devoid of good songs or even a hint of cinematic style.

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