Based on the Tony Award-winning smash of the same name, the new movie musical Dear Evan Hansen is an unmitigated disaster, a winding road of cringe-inducing character moments and baffling creative choices paved with good intentions all the way along. After striking out fantastically with the tragically misconceived Cats in 2019, Universal Pictures tries and fails again to translate a Broadway favorite to the big screen. If their goal is to make the division between musical theater geeks and the uninitiated even larger than it already is, then they’re succeeding better than any other major studio at the moment. This is a film that takes on tough and timely themes like teen suicide, mental health and social media but comes up with bad takes on nearly all of the subjects that it covers.
Reprising the eponymous role he created on-stage starting in 2015, Ben Platt plays a troubled high school student whose anxiety and depression stifle his ability to create meaningful friendships. On the advice of his therapist, he writes notes to himself for motivation to get through the day. One such letter ends up in the hands of Connor Murphy (Colton Ryan), a brusque classmate who is incensed by the mention of his sister — and Evan’s secret crush — Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever) in the note. A misunderstanding begins when Connor’s parents Cynthia (Amy Adams) and Danny (Danny Pino) approach Evan with the note, thinking he wrote it to Connor, who took his own life just days afterwards. Instead of clearing up said misunderstanding, Evan perpetuates the lie and insinuates himself into the grieving family, weaving tales through song of moments that never occurred between Connor and himself.
This premise may seem shockingly cold-hearted and in devastatingly poor taste — don’t worry, it is — but what makes Dear Evan Hansen so despicable is how it expands and doubles-down on its loathsome setup. First, we’re to believe that Evan doesn’t clear up the misconception about the intended recipient of the note and his relationship with Connor because social anxiety kicks in when the Murphys meet with him about it. As someone who has struggled mightily with mental health over the past two years, I’m completely sympathetic to those who battle these issues every day of their lives. However, I also believe that even someone who suffers from a particularly profound case of Social Anxiety Disorder would pump the brakes on this mix-up before a sitcom-style snowball effect would start up.
In addition to deceiving the Murphys, Evan also involves a tenacious classmate who is also battling depression played by Amandla Stenberg, the film’s sole highlight. She proposes The Connor Project, a crowdfunding effort to preserve the memory of their fallen classmate and reopen an orchard where Evan claims to have spent many an afternoon with Connor. Where director Stephen Chbosky and writer Steven Levenson look to cut corners with their shallow protagonist when it comes to visibility into mental health, Stenberg makes up ground with her authentic portrayal of a teen doing her best to overcome. I would have much rather seen a movie centered around her character for many reasons, not least of which being the good it could have done in reducing the stigma of mood disorders among the black community.
But instead, we’re forced to endure a duplicitous creep belt out song after song about his fake friendship while the Likes and Shares inevitably rack up on social media platforms. It’s utterly inexplicable to me that composers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, who contributed to the miraculous La La Land, could come up with music as cloying and uninspired as this. Perhaps the best of the musical numbers were left on the stage but the ones in this film have the phoniness of bad contemporary Christian music. Only one sequence, set to “Sincerely, Me”, manages to do anything meaningful with the cinematic form but it’s still mired in the movie’s icky subtext of exploitation and deceit. Don’t be thrown by its pretty packaging; Dear Evan Hansen deserves to be marked “return to sender”.
Score – 1/5
New movies coming this weekend:
Playing only in theaters is Venom: Let There Be Carnage, a Sony Spider-Man Universe sequel starring Tom Hardy and Woody Harrelson which finds the titular antihero squaring off against a new alien symbiote.
Opening in theaters and streaming on HBO Max is The Many Saints of Newark, a crime epic starring Michael Gandolfini and Leslie Odom Jr. which depicts the days of the infamous Tony Soprano in his youth.
Premiering on Netflix is The Guilty, an adaptation of a Danish thriller starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Ethan Hawke about a 911 dispatcher who receives an emergency phone call from a kidnapped woman.
Reprinted by permission of Whatzup