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Dear ‘Dear Evan Hansen’

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Dear “Dear Evan Hansen,”

It turns out that this wasn’t an amazing movie after all. It isn’t going to be an amazing adaptation that will capture the imaginations of viewers, even those who adore the original stage musical version. Nor will it prove to be the financial windfall that is almost certainly its raison d’etre.

And why is that?

Oh, I know. Because there’s Ben Platt. Ben Platt, who won the Tony for originating the titular role back in the middle of the 2010s. Ben Platt, who absolutely should have known better, who should have had the self-awareness to recognize that an unmistakably adult man in his late 20s cannot plausibly play a high school student on screen. Maybe if I had a preexisting relationship with this musical, I could move past that, but since I don’t, all I see is a bordering-on-sociopathic narrative playing out with an energy that feels both maudlin and parodic.

I wish that this experience had been different. I wish that I could focus on the aspects of it that worked – for instance, the music is undeniably lovely – but instead, I am trapped in the uncanny valley of pretending Ben Platt is a teenager. I wish that director Stephen Chbosky had proven successful in his attempt to marry his own specific style of angsty teenage drama to the broad spectacle of musical theatre … but he did not. Instead, we got an obvious attempt to ground the story in some kind of realism, despite the fact that a) the narrative is too fundamentally broken to treat realistically, and b) dramatic intimacy is fundamentally undermined by the constant breaking into song.

From the moment that “teenager” Evan Hansen appears on screen, it’s clear that this isn’t going to work. Evan is a sad and lonely “boy,” a nervous, neurotic and depressed person without any friends. He’s got his mom Heidi (Julianne Moore), who loves him and looks FAR too young to have a 35-year-old high school senior for a son, but other than that, there’s not much going on for him.

Evan’s therapist has given him a not-at-all-narratively-contrived assignment to write letters to himself wherein he gives himself pep talks about the relative quality of his days. But when one of these letters finds its way into the hands of Connor Murphy (Colton Ryan), a different flavor of loner outsider, Evan is terrified that the letter will find its way into the larger world.

Instead, that letter is still in Connor’s pocket when he takes his own life. This leads Connor’s parents Cynthia (Amy Adams) and Larry (Danny Pino) to believe that their son had written this letter to Evan, indicating that the two were friends. Cynthia and Larry, plus Connor’s sister (and Evan’s secret crush) Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever), consider Evan’s “friendship” with Connor to be a chance to better understand their late son.

And Evan … just lets them think that.

The outlandish (and again, sociopathic) lie quickly spirals out of control. Evan and fellow student Alana (Amandla Stenberg) wind up leading a new organization in Connor’s memory. Evan’s speech (which is really a song) at Connor’s memorial goes viral and disseminates far and wide. And Evan starts dating Zoe. All of this under the pretense that Evan and Connor were friends, which, again, they absolutely were not.

The web of lies starts to unravel, as all webs of lies tend to do. And Evan is left to confront his own reasons for allowing the charade to continue. But if you’re worried that Evan will somehow be led to learn some kind of lesson and/or suffer actual consequences, fear not – any moral or ethical concerns are jazz hands-waved away.

There’s no denying that “Dear Evan Hansen” had a real impact on the theatre world. It won multiple Tony Awards and proved incredibly popular, especially among young people. But as we’re learning, the adaptability of these sorts of stage sensations isn’t always what it needs to be to ensure any kind of actual success.

Take the direction. Chbosky never figures out how to make this stage-screen translation work. Instead, it’s like some standard-issue teen-oriented drama inexplicably punctuated with torch songs (and a couple of weird production numbers).

And again, the actions undertaken by our titular teenager are problematic at best and sociopathic at worst. And that’s under the auspices of somehow who at least kind of resembles a young person in the lead. When these misdeeds are being committed by a guy in his late 20s who could pull off 35 and has a cryface that makes him look 45, there’s an added element of creepiness that really pushes the whole mess over the edge.

I’ll concede that it’s possible that “Dear Evan Hansen” is a better movie with an age-appropriate lead. Not likely, but possible. The issue is that the protagonist’s apparent age doesn’t actually fix the fundamental insanity of the central premise, so while an actual teenager might have taken the edge off, the whole story being built on a foundation of lies and narcissism will remain a major problem.

(My sympathies go out to the other folks in this movie, who are clearly doing their best. Kaitlyn Dever, Julianne Moore, Amy Adams … my condolences, ladies. You are all incredible talents who deserve far better than this.)

Yes, the songs are good. And yes, I got choked up and weepy a couple of times. That means nothing – I am a notorious soft touch and am a sucker for musical theatre feelings, yes, but I am also well aware of when those feelings are ultimately empty. I know when I am being emotionally manipulated, and when that emotional reaction is unearned, I resent it.

And I resent this movie DEEPLY.

I wish that I had not been a part of watching “Dear Evan Hansen.” I wish I had spent that time doing something else. Almost anything else, to be honest. And while I know that the people who made this film want very much for it to matter, the reality is that it ultimately will not. It will vanish from the consciousness with nary a ripple … and very few will notice it was ever here in the first place.

Sincerely, your disinterested and already-over-it acquaintance,

Me

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Last modified on Monday, 27 September 2021 11:14

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