Movie Review ~ Dear Evan Hansen

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The Facts:

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

Rated: PG-13

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?

Movie Review ~ Broken Diamonds

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The Facts:

Synopsis: In the wake of his father’s death, a twenty-something writer sees his dream of moving to Paris put in jeopardy when he’s forced to temporarily take in his wildly unpredictable, mentally ill sister.

Stars: Ben Platt, Lola Kirke, Yvette Nicole Brown, Alphonso McAuley

Director: Peter Sattler

Rated: NR

Running Length: 90 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  I have a fear of Ben Platt.  It’s undiagnosed, but I think it’s medically sound.  I’m fairly sure it began around the time he sang Leonard Bernstein’s ” Somewhere ” live at the 60th Annual Grammy Awards in 2018 (the vibrato haunts my dreams) and it’s only grown since then.  I’ve tried exposure therapy by binging both seasons of The Politician on Netflix and I saw my pulse decrease significantly between season 1 and season 2 so I know I’m making progress.  I suffered a minor setback with the recent debut of the Dear Evan Hansen trailer and am already mentally preparing for the September 24th release date, but I put my head between my knees after I saw his hair and with some deep breathing I was able to work through the anxiety.

I truly thought Broken Diamonds was going to be another training exercise for myself, a trial to see how far I could be pushed to my breaking point where Platt was concerned.  After all, aside from his appearances in Pitch Perfect and its sequel, Platt hasn’t had much time to appear in many films.  Roles in 2015’s Ricki and the Flash and 2016’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk were forgettable but led to a more pivotal one in the 2019 drama Run This Town that didn’t even break a sweat in the US.  In all honesty, not a whole lot is riding on Broken Diamonds. Apart from it looking an awful lot like 2014’s The Skeleton Twins, it appears to have been filmed in the middle of 2018 and is being distributed by a small indie company that usually reissues old TV movies on Amazon. So even if it were a disaster for Platt, it would be easy to shove this one under the rug pretty fast.

The thing is, Platt’s performance in Broken Diamonds is maybe the best thing I’ve seen him do.  It’s his least mannered, least controlled, and least curated to death role to date.  That this is the film of his that likely not a lot of people will see is a shame because the actor is doing something special within the framework of 90ish minutes and more attention should be paid.  Working alongside the equally impressive Lola Kirke (Gone Girl), the two form a dynamic duo for a family drama focusing on two siblings aiming to find balance in their lives which are dramatically out of synch.  She’s a diagnosed schizophrenic kicked out of her mental health facility just as her brother has packed up his apartment and is moving to Paris, following his dream to become a writer.  All this happens the same weekend their father unexpectedly passes away.

Offering little complications along the way, Steve Waverly’s script is all about getting these two in the same room and talking it out as much as possible.  Sure, Platt’s character, Scott does his fair share of griping about his sister Cindy to her therapist (Catherine Lough Haggquist, Fifty Shades Freed, powerful in just a few short scenes), to their stepmother Cookie (Yvette Nicole Brown, Lady & the Tramp), and their estranged mother (Lynda Boyd, The Age of Adaline) who stays away mostly because she suffers from her own degenerative mental condition.  Without many friends of his own and with Cindy burning all of her former bridges, the siblings have no one left but each other, so the movie is comprised largely of face-to-face conversations about rough childhoods growing up in the shadow of mental illness. 

Before you go too bug-eyed and think this is all gloom and doom depressing, let me assure you that director Peter Sattler manages to keep the film from leaning toward being singularly focused on the darker side of things.  There’s plenty of small bits of humor that break up the mood from being too severe, comedy that doesn’t feel out of place or disingenuous to the more serious subjects being taken up.  Yet the film does have to get to a dramatic peak and in the end, it winds up not shying away from the black edges that mental illness can take people to.  This is where Kirke has a chance to shine as well.  We’ve already seen her do good work over multiple seasons in Amazon’s dearly departed Mozart in the Jungle but there’s some deep digging going on in Broken Diamonds that’s to be admired.

The fear of Ben Platt still remains, I think it will always be there.  I find, however, that Broken Diamonds was a good tool for me to use when I have those Grammy nightmares or think of his Instagram videos where he’s wearing overalls for the sixth or seventh day in a row.  It’s in these moments of chilling cold sweats that I’ll remember he can turn it out when he wants to and pull back for the right film and message.   

Movie Review ~ Run This Town


The Facts
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Synopsis: An emerging political scandal in Toronto in 2013 seen through the eyes of young staffers at city hall and a local newspaper.

Stars: Ben Platt, Nina Dobrev, Mena Massoud, Damian Lewis, Jennifer Ehle, Scott Speedman

Director: Ricky Tollman

Rated: R

Running Length: 99 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: Political movies can go one of two ways in my book.  They can either be timely pieces that illustrate how current events line up with the past (or vice versa) or they can be too talky, with insider-baseball scripts that only a third year Senate intern would appreciate.  So it’s interesting to note that Run this Town is one of these genre films that wants to have it both ways.  It revels in deep dive dialogue that strives to impress while looking to find a way to connect up with our political climate today.

Living in the early months of 2020 and the simmering pot of salty water that will soon be brought to a boil by our November presidential election, it can be easy to forget the 2013 events that are covered in Run this Town.  Even I needed to stop the movie for a few minutes to get a little refresher about what’s happening in writer/director Ricky Tollman’s breathless opening, a back and forth between a group of young politicos that hits the ground running without much of a warm-up. While I’m more familiar with Toronto’s Rob Ford for his infamous antics first as Mayor and then as a scandalized fallen citizen with drug charges, I admit I wasn’t aware of the late politician’s troublesome behavior in a pre-Harvey Weinstein sexual harassment landscape.

At the center of the film is Bram (Ben Platt, Pitch Perfect), a recent college grad hoping to become a journalist that lands a job at an impressive paper in Toronto where his bosses are Scott Speedman (The Vow) and the imposing Jennifer Ehle (RoboCop).  Coming from a privileged family (not unlike Platt himself), Bram has an uphill battle in proving himself and he’s after a big story…and it presents itself to him when he catches wind of the dirty dealings surrounding Mayor Rob Ford (Damian Lewis, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, unrecognizable in a fat suit and prosthetic facial additions) and his political office.  As Bram attempts to navigate the tricky ethics of exposing a political animal, Ford’s long-suffering aide (Mena Massoud, Aladdin) struggles with his own morals in protecting his boss though he knows what kind of man he is.  An encounter between Ford and a young aide (Nina Dobrev, The Perks of Being a Wallflower) proves to be a catalyst that will send a ripple effect through the political halls and newspaper rooms of Toronto and, soon, the world.

Reminding me to a lesser extent of Spotlight, Run this Town absolutely has its focus in the right place but I’m not sure if there was something lost in the translation of Tollman’s script to the screen or what but the movie is dense and distracting.  Even focusing in on the dialogue, the movie is sometimes hard to follow and at a not that long 99 minutes the film feels padded for time.  The performances are solid across the board, but the jury is out if Lewis is excellent under all that plastic and padding or if it’s an absolutely terrible hammy take on Ford.  You won’t be able to take your eyes off it, that’s for sure.  There’s promise in Tollman’s ear for sharp dialogue though and, with time, I think he’ll be a director to watch out for.  Not quite the talk of the town yet, but Run this Town is a good start.