I am a big fan of musicals — and theater in general. I’m an even bigger fan of movies, so for me, there is a bit of a mutual relationship going on between Hollywood and Broadway. Lots of movies get adapted to musicals and lots of musicals get adapted to movies.
2021 has been a particularly strong year for musical adaptations in particular. We got “In the Heights” that came out earlier this year, adapting the popular Lin Manuel Miranda debut, and Steven Spielberg directed a remake of “West Side Story”, a popular play that already had a groundbreaking film adaptation, which will be coming out Christmas. Wedged right in between that is “Dear Evan Hansen.” I feel I should preface ahead of time that I am not a fan of the “Dear Evan Hansen” play. However, despite that, my theater friends who do like it agreed with me that this adaptation missed the mark, so I don’t think my personal biases affect my overall assessment.
The movie’s premise is one of the most baffling stories I’ve ever seen played straight. This is a dark comedy story. It would play perfectly as a satire. In fact, that’s what I initially thought it was going to be because I couldn’t think of any other way this story could work. If anything, this actively mocks what it’s trying to depict sincerely. It’s like the inverse of a satire.
The movie is about a kid named Evan Hansen who has severe social issues. Through a series of accidents, a letter he wrote to himself as an exercise from his therapist ends up in the possession of the brother of his crush. The brother, Connor Murphy, later commits suicide. Due to having the letter on him when he died, his family mistakes Evan for his best friend and because of his social awkwardness and naivety he goes along with this lie.
I feel the movie thought I’d sympathize with Evan considering the kid’s corpse he was trotting out like a puppet for social points was kind of an asshole; but hey, turns out people who are suicidal may have mental issues and are not the most emotionally stable. With that reasoning, I’m not going to sympathize.
Might as well address the elephant in the room with the casting controversy, Ben Platt reprises the role of Evan despite looking significantly older than the role requires — a senior in high school. Adults playing teenagers and looking way too old is a common occurrence in movies, but in this case it’s off putting due to the lengths they go to disguise his age. It’s especially weird because everyone else looks young; in comparison, he looks significantly older. It also makes all the creepy weird shit Evan does significantly creepier and more off-putting. The nervous twitches of a teenager do not play well on a 27-year-old caked in makeup so thick you’d think they’d applied it by using a shotgun on a banana cream pie. This is a role that requires naivety. That naivety falls completely flat when it’s not coming from a teen and is instead coming from a grown ass man with a barely hidden 5 o’clock shadow. No amount of slouching and Naruto running can fix that. That last part wasn’t a joke, by the way. He Naruto runs in this movie.
The choreography is so dull. It mostly consists in walking through hallways or rooms. No real movement or dancing or anything of any visual interest. Its cold harsh color grading is an assault on the eyes. Bizarre choice to shoot this movie like it’s a David Fincher film. I know “Dear Evan Hansen” is about death, but this feels like I’m watching a true crime movie.
To focus on the music aspect of this musical, the songs aren’t good. It’s generic crap trying to be heartwarming but completely falling flat especially because of how cold and lifeless it all sounds, not even talking about production but how it feels manufactured, like it was designed via checklist. The production just sandblasted off any personality that could’ve seeped through during the actual live performances. This was also an aspect that my theater friends felt was ruined in the musical. Platt is particularly awful. He cracks his voice more times in each song than the cracks in drying makeup and aged skin. Bizarre choice as he sings perfectly fine in the play. Not a crack in site.
The most baffling choice in the film however was what ended up being cut and added. The opening was cut, which basically depicted Evan’s life. The issue is that the first song directly follows this opening and is a reaction to what we saw. The movie simply opens with the first song, but this time it’s reacting to something we haven’t seen and thus makes no sense. They also add a song in there that does nothing and is entirely useless to the plot and just wastes time they could’ve given to developing Evan’s mother, the heart of the play. Speaking of which, they cut her last song, the final song of the movie, the song that finally addresses how awful of a person Evan is — the literal make or break moment of the story. I mentioned how important the ending was earlier; well, the movie cuts the ending of the play. If it kept this song, it would be significantly better, still not good, and many of my criticisms still apply to the play, but a lot better.
One good cut was the removal the creepiest part of the play, but once again the screenwriters didn’t change the lyrics of the song that directly references it, which is incredibly confusing.
What also baffled me is that this was directed by Stephen Chbosky, the director of “The Perks of Being a Wallflower”. I don’t love the movie, but it is a noticeable step up in its depiction of mental health and direction, so I’m baffled by the ineptitude displayed here. If you’re interested in “Dear Evan Hansen,” I’d recommend you check out “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” instead. Don’t give your money to this awful, awful movie.