Synopsis: Evan Hansen, a high schooler with social anxiety, unintentionally gets caught up in a lie after the family of a classmate who committed suicide mistakes one of Hansen’s letters for their son’s suicide note.
Stars: Ben Platt, Amy Adams, Kaitlyn Dever, Julianne Moore, Amandla Stenberg, Nik Dodani, Colton Ryan, Danny Pino
Director: Stephen Chbosky
Running Length: 137 minutes
TMMM Score: (5/10)
Review: I suppose there was a certain inevitability to the failure of Dear Evan Hansen’s screen adaptation the moment Ben Platt was cast to reprise his Tony Award winning stage performance. Platt’s work in the Broadway version (a piece he’d been with since its inception all the way back to 2014) was heralded to high heaven and there was even a glossy New York Times piece in 2017 that walked us through his daily rituals, showing us just how emotionally taxing it was to play Evan Hansen eight times a week. This was a performer that put his all into the role, physically and emotionally. He won all the accolades for it and has gone on to become a popular presence among fans in his age group.
So, when the time came to make the movie of Dear Evan Hansen, unlike other film adaptations where the award-winning star of the Broadway show was overlooked, the producers chose instead to go back to Platt who was more than happy to resurrect his Evan Hansen that he had since given over to a series of respectable replacements. Now, I’m not saying with Platt’s dad (uber-producer Marc Platt) ranking high in the film’s producer list that the younger Platt had an advantage but…let’s not fool ourselves. Platt himself has even acknowledged the film likely wouldn’t have been made without his involvement (really?) so how about we just go with Platt being the only person in consideration for the role.
I’m not going to get into a debate about the age thing that has haunted so many a chat board ever since the first trailer was released. There are enough hysterical memes and terrific GIFs that have been made of an aged Platt standing amongst the younger classmates but in reality, once you see the film you realize that it’s not the age difference that makes a difference. Despite a truly tragic hair style which calls into question the creative decisions of the hair and make-up designers more than anything, Platt actually doesn’t look all that older than Kaitlyn Dever (Booksmart), Nik Dodani (Escape Room), Amandla Stenberg (The Hunger Games), and Colton Ryan (Uncle Frank), who are all supposed to be his classmates. He may look a tad ganglier than the rest but certainly not the creepy adult-looking man-child early hot takes would have had you think.
The real trouble for Platt and the film version of Dear Evan Hansen is Platt’s inability to stop performing and start acting, really acting. The actor is so tied into his stage performance and what made that work that he forgets that he’s working for the camera on a small scale and needs to dial everything back about twenty clicks. What might have worked onstage simply doesn’t work for film and even after making a number of movies and TV series, it’s surprising Platt regresses so dramatically here. That he’s cast alongside experienced pros only calls this out on a grander scale.
Evan Hansen (Platt, Broken Diamonds), laced with anxiety and pent-up emotion, has been given a task by his therapist. He’s been asked to write letters to himself as a way of encouragement to fend off the negative thoughts and feelings he has about starting another school year with no friends except for “family friend” Jared (Dodani). Pining for Zoe Murphy (Dever) from afar, he can barely work up the courage to speak with her and after a particularly rough day he writes a letter to himself in the school library that is read by Zoe’s brother Connor (Ryan) who thinks Evan has written it to make fun of him. Terrified Connor will use the letter against him, Evan spends the next several days in fear of retaliation until he’s called into the principal’s office to meet with Connor’s parents. That’s where he learns Connor had taken his own life and Evan’s letter has been (incorrectly) assumed to be his suicide note. His parents want to know if, as his only friend, Evan had any insight to offer about Connor.
Right here is where the story of Dear Evan Hansen takes a turn that loses a number of viewers because of its horrible deception, me included. Instead of correcting them, Evan goes along with that wrong assumption that Connor and he were friends and becomes a false sense of comfort to the Murphy’s…mostly to get closer to Zoe. He says the right things to make Cynthia (Amy Adams, The Woman in the Window) feel as if she didn’t let her son down quite so much and tells stepfather Larry (Danny Pino) how Connor appreciated their time together. He goes one lie bigger with Zoe, creating fictious conversations between him and Connor about her that suggests whatever fracture was present in their relationship was something he wanted to fix. Basically, he tells them what they want to hear so they feel better, and they keep him around. It’s an advantageous situation for everyone…but it’s a lie. As the lie gets bigger and goes inexplicably global and with the more people get involved with memorializing Connor (Stenberg’s role as a fellow student, while the best acted and sung out of all bar-none, feels as tacked on here as it does in the show), the harder it is for Evan to keep reality and fiction separate.
Interspersed throughout is the Tony Award winning score from Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, tunes that are hummable but not as memorable as the ones they created for The Greatest Showman (sorry, not sorry). A new song they wrote with Stenberg for her character goes over nicely but they’ve also cut several songs and that’s an unfortunate loss because it leaves the film feeling only half like the musical it very much is. You almost wonder if the movie would have been more successful without music all together because the entire story seems like a film we’d see released in the fall as an awards hopeful. Something about it all doesn’t gel and you can’t blame it all on Platt or even the ho-hum direction by Stephen Chbosky (The Perks of Being a Wallflower).
When a film is just getting by on fumes to begin with, you hope that the performances will save it. We’ve already discussed Platt’s inability to get out of his own way, resulting in some seriously unimpressive (and often embarrassing) scenes of him over singing that you think he’s going to hurl from the force of it all. Compare that to the work that Adams, Dever, and Pino do in the haunting “Requiem” sequence – which is just as emotional as Platt’s most harrowing songs but is restrained enough to convey just the right tone without going overboard. Adams has had a rough go these past few years and I was sad to see one of her songs cut, but it’s a duet with Evan’s mom played by Julianne Moore (The Glorias) who, from what I gather, is a bit of a non-singer. While Moore does have a grand 11 o’clock number that she sells up and down, left and right…I wish for Adams’s sake they could have kept the earlier song to give Adams vocally more to do.
Problematic with or without its hokey star, Dear Evan Hansen always faced an uphill battle on its way to the big screen and it’s unfortunate it was dealt so many tough blows on its way to release. The early buzz based on images alone was negative, the first reviews from screenings wasn’t promising, and even the reaction by Platt and his team was disappointing in its “So what”-ness. And you know what, the film isn’t even all that bad. You can see a decently made film in there somewhere but without a central figure to truly root for and then sans an actor in that role you believe in, where’s the fun in going to the theater and finding a reason to applaud?