By now you have seen the trailer, read my thoughts from the world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival and heard how “Dear Evan Hansen” has been dragged through the social media mud all before hitting theaters.
That begs the question: Is the film adaptation of the Tony Award-winning “Dear Evan Hansen” really that bad? The answer will depend on your willingness to suspend disbelief.
Broadway star Ben Platt, originating the role on stage, was 27 years old when they shot the film (he turns 29 this weekend). The decision to cast Platt as a 17-year-old (coupled with the fact his father is a producer on the movie) is the film’s colossal miscalculation. What works on stage, when the audience is far away, is way different when you have extreme close-ups of just how freakish the makeup and prosthetics make Platt appear.
Evan Hansen (Platt) starts his first day of senior year with a cast on his arm. If the 17-year-old wasn’t already a nervous wreck about a new year of bullying and being unnoticed, the cast will provide more negative attention. A misunderstanding with another ostracized classmate results in Conner Murphy (Colton Ryan) signing his cast and swiping a letter Hansen wrote to himself, as part of therapy.
After Conner commits suicide, the letter, which begins “Dear Evan Hansen,” is mistaken for a suicide note by Conner’s parents (Amy Adams, Danny Pino). The Murphy family concocts an entire story about their disturbed son to help them cope — a story that Evan goes along with, including the notion he and Conner were best friends. The lie grows and infects the entire student body, organizations and social media, resulting in Hansen being the most popular boy in school.
Julianne Moore, who plays Evan’s workaholic mother, says for the audience benefit in an early scene that her son is a senior in high school. An admission that visual credibility is in question.
Elements of Platt’s performance suggests Hansen is on the spectrum, yet in other scenes it’s entirely disregarded. Every musical decides how songs integrate into the story. Some choose to stop time, while characters belt out ballads, then the story continues. Others incorporate each song into the narrative, so the plot continues advancing.
With a running time more than two hours, “Dear Evan Hansen” chooses the stop-all-time method. Within these songs (every actor and character gets their own) is where Platt shines and fails.
He has an amazing voice, and while none of the songs are memorable, his vocal range is impressive. It’s the close-ups of the prosthetic makeup being stretched to capacity as he sings that’s disturbing even frightening as in “Words Fail.” It’s the email song, however, that plunges “Dear Evan Hansen” to even lower depths.
The intentions behind the play and film are obviously pure. The same goes for director Stephen Chbosky’s previous film “Wonder,” which also relied heavily on makeup and prosthetics. You could almost argue that Jacob Tremblay’s Auggie from “Wonder” grows up to be Evan Hansen, and this is the rest of his story.
When Platt and his distracting presence are off screen, the film works much better, especially thanks to Kaitlyn Dever (“Booksmart”) and Amandla Stenberg (“The Hate U Give”). Not only do they represent believable teenagers, but their characters are the most realistic.
Asking us to believe Platt is a teenager, horrifying us with close-ups, suspending belief that the Murphys and even Evan’s mom are that naive is too much.
This isn’t science fiction; its intended purpose as a musical drama, to help parents and teens cope with loss, accepting those who are different and themes of morality, are irreparably ruined by poor choices on the part of the filmmakers.
Final Thought: Good intentions can’t overcome the many moments requiring suspension of disbelief; ghoulish make-up/prosthetics on Platt leaves his performance deranged.