Perhaps it is time we take away any opportunity to allow Universal Pictures to greenlight big-screen adaptations of hit Broadway musicals. After the colossal failure of Tom Hooper’s Cats, the latest big-screen miscalculation of a Broadway smash arrives in the form of Dear Evan Hansen, the highly-acclaimed musical from 2015. While something like Cats may have a small chance of cinematic success — with the right helmer, of course — Dear Evan Hansen proves that some musicals just aren’t meant to cross over into the realm of cinema.
Dear Evan Hansen‘s doozy of a plot isn’t the easiest pill to swallow. Ben Platt, reprising the role he originated on stage, stars as the social outcast, Evan Hansen. We’re introduced to Evan sporting a cast on his arm from “falling” out of a tree and singing in possibly the film’s best number, “Waving Through a Window”, which does the best job at conveying the character’s societal anxieties. To help him cope with his struggles, Evan is instructed by his therapist to write a letter to himself everyday. When a fellow troubled classmate, Connor (Colton Ryan) intercepts one of Evan’s letters and later takes his own life, Connor’s family finds the letter and assumes he and Evan were, in fact, friends. Evan, unable to tell the truth because… anxiety(?), decides to run with the false narrative and attempts to juggle the potential consequences, as well as getting closer with Connor’s family, specifically his younger sister, Zoe, Booksmart‘s Kaitlyn Dever.
To address the biggest elephant in the room (and there are several); Platt is 27 years old and looks as believable as a high schooler as the cast of Cats were as actual cats. Equipped with a goofy wig that does the actor no favors, Platt’s presence is a consistent distraction that never fades. The actor does give an empathetic performance, one that is ripe with raw emotion, but not only is the character not particularly well-defined, he is painted a hero when his actions are simply deplorable, never truly questioning him.
Director Stephen Chbosky — responsible for one of the more insightful looks at teenage anxieties in the wonderful The Perks of Being a Wallflower — leaves no room for nuance or complexity the film desperately needs. There is such little depth in the material here, the overall film feels more tone-deaf than anything. The contrived, manipulative plotting doesn’t allow for any real emotion to arise from the script, feeling more calculated than genuine. Any true pathos evoked in the film is brought out from its cast.
While not able to shake his appearance or the story he leads the charge in, Ben Platt does prove himself to be a worthy star in the right role. Amy Adams adds some much-needed layers to the role of Connor’s mother, who, alongside her husband, played effectively by Danny Pino, take in Evan and opens their hearts to him. Julianne Moore is reliably terrific as Evan’s overworked single mom and Amandla Stenberg is a graceful presence as Alana, a fellow classmate that starts up a memorial fund for Connor.
The lack of dimension in the films portrayal of anxiety, depression and suicide are not just problematic, but occasionally repugnant. One number in particular, “Sincerely Me”, in which Evan, alongside a family friend, go so far as to write out fake emails posing as the deceased Connor to cover their tracks, all while intercut with faux footage of the three boys having the time of their lives together at an amusement park in perhaps the most hideous, cruel and uncomfortable moment in the entire film, by far. The film already uses the deceased Connor character as a sort of symbol that’s trotted around like a puppet for whenever our “hero” needs to advance his social status or to get closer to the sister of said character, but this is the clear moment that draws a line in the sand that can’t be taken back.
Dear Evan Hansen occasionally flirts with deeper themes, but never commits or explores any of them thoroughly. The musical number “Requiem” features Connor’s family wrestling with the feeling he wasn’t always a great person, and what that means for the grieving process. Unfortunately, these feelings are literally never mentioned after this sequence and don’t add up to any satisfying conclusion.
With award-winning music from the songwriters behind La La Land and The Greatest Showman, the songs are largely nonstarters with many going in one ear and out the other. The opening track and “You Will Be Found”, sung during a critical speech from Evan, are the two songs that give the character — and Platt– a worthy showcase. An original song “The Anonymous Ones”, co-written by star Amandla Stenberg, is perhaps the track that leaves the longest emotional impact. Finally, Julianne Moore gets a quietly moving final act number in “So Big/So Small” that doesn’t not call back to Michael Stuhlbarg’s brilliant monologue from Call Me By Your Name.
Running at an exhaustive 137 minutes, the uneven pacing doesn’t help smoothen out the ride. Initially set as being the soaring climax to the end of act 1 on stage, the critical moment of “You Will Be Found” happens over 90 minutes in and by that point, the film has already spent so much time meandering within its most problematic story beats. This is also one of the least visually distinguishable musicals in quite some time, begging the question as to why this story warranted the cinematic treatment.
Good intentions will only get you so far. Dear Evan Hansen is completely tone deaf in the moments where it needs complexion. Despite a handful of nice songs and some solid performances, this is a thoroughly uncomfortable experience whose mishandling of important themes becomes more offensive the longer you linger on them.