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Dear Evan Hansen
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by Peter Sobczynski

"The Perks Of Being A Creepy Old Wallflower"
1 stars

While watching “Dear Evan Hansen,” the screen version of the celebrated Broadway musical that won a gaggle of Tonys a few years ago and proved to be especially popular among audiences younger than those typically found frequenting the Great White Way, I became convinced that I was experiencing one of the most wretched and utterly misbegotten films—certainly of that genre—to come along since the arrival of “Cats” a couple of years ago. In fact, I almost hesitated to make such a comparison on the basis that I thought that it might be a little too unfair to “Cats.” Don’t get me wrong—that was a bottomlessly terrible movie as well and not even my admiration for Taylor Swift is enough to inspire any revisionist thinking regarding its numerous crimes against cinema. That said, while “Cats” was an example of kitsch gone extraordinarily wrong, it did so in such transcendently goofy ways that you couldn’t even get that mad at it and it did evoke a strange fascination as it went on that held your attention, even if it was just to see how much weirder it could possibly get. (Answer—a lot.) “Dear Evan Hansen,” on the other hand, is an ostensibly far more serious show dealing with important real-life themes but it handles them in such graceless and cringe-inducing ways that not only does it never work for a second, it left me wondering what audiences and Tony voters could have possibly been thinking when they venerated it in the first place.

The film kicks off with awkward teenager Evan Hansen (Ben Platt) beginning his senior year of high school with a vast array of long-standing social anxieties that have left him unable to connect with anyone other than his mother (Julianne Moore), an overworked nurse that he barely sees, and Jared (Nik Dodani), who spends a lot of time reminding him that they aren’t that good of friends as well as a cast on his arm, the result of having taken a fall out of a tree over the summer. As an exercise to help boost his self-esteem assigned to him by his therapist, Evan writes a letter of affirmation to himself each day and is doing so in the school library when he has an awkward conversation with Connor Murphy (Colton Ryan), a classmate who is possibly even more of an outcast than Evan himself and who also happens to be the brother of Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever), the classmate he has a secret crush on. Connor signs his name on Evan’s otherwise blank cast in huge letters and then takes off with a just-printed copy of Evan’s latest missive, which contains a reference to Zoe. A couple of days later, Evan is called into the principal’s office where he is introduced to Connor’s mother Heidi (Amy Adams) and stepfather Larry (Danny Pino) and is informed that Connor has taken his own life. Since Evan’s letter was the only thing found on him, they—mostly his grieving mother—are convinced that Connor actually wrote the letter as a suicide note addressed to his heretofore unknown friend, a notion that is further bolstered by the signature on the cast.

At first, Evan tries to tell them that he actually wrote the letter himself but the combination of his troubles with communicating and Heidi’s desperate need for closure ensure that he fails to do so and when he is invited to dinner with the Murphys, he is compelled to try to make them feel better—especially Zoe, who own relationship with her brother was extremely rocky—by spinning off some elaborate lies about his supposedly long-standing relationship with Connor. This is already bad enough but Evan decides to ramp things up by creating a series of fake emails chronicling his faux friendship with Connor that ingratiate him further with the Murphys, especially Zoe, and makes him the center of attention at school as overachieving class president Alana (Amandla Stenberg) convinces him to help her begin a viral project designed to raise awareness of mental health issues among young people. Between spinning his increasingly complex web of lies at school and to the Murphys and trying to keep it all a secret from his mother, who obviously has no idea who Connor, Evan soon finds himself in way too deep and it is only a matter of time before things fall apart in spectacular fashion.

I must confess that, for whatever reason, I had no idea of what “Dear Evan Hansen” was actually about—I think that I was under the impression that it was about a gay teenager coming terms with himself and his sexuality—and when I finally discovered exactly what the premise was just before the film made its disastrous debut opening this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, I found myself wondering how a story that sounded like the world’s grimmest episode of “Three’s Company” could possibly work, either on stage or as a film. Simply put, it doesn’t and while I understand that a few changes have been made to the material in its transition to multiplexes—the character of Alana has been amplified somewhat and Evan evidently undergoes a more overt form of repentance than he did on the stage. Fans of the show will have to debate among themselves as to whether these changes are improvements or not but even if they have, it doesn’t really matter because the entire premise is so fundamentally untenable that I cannot imagine anything that could make it work. Maybe if it had been played as a caustic satire—sort of a “Heathers” for the social media age—it might have been able to make its points about acceptance and stigmas regarding mental health issues without resorting to cloying sanctimony or narratives that require so many unlikely events to keep things moving that the whole thing eventually feels like the cinematic equivalent of the guy who used to spin plates on Ed Sullivan back in the day.

That is not the case and as a result, I suspect that most newcomers to the material will look at “Dear Evan Hansen” with equal parts revulsion and confusion that something this off-putting could even exist, let alone find favor with so many people. To them, instead of a misunderstood and anxious teen whose desire for acceptance causes him to make a well-meaning mistake that unfortunately snowballs out of his control, my guess is that they will see Evan as a gaslighting jerk whose own self-interest inspires him to cruelly exploit the pain of others in order to get the things that he wants—friends, a more stable family environment and the love of Zoe. His actions are thoughtless throughout—and that is putting the most charitable spin possible on them—and even though he does atone for them in the end a tad, most will find those efforts to be way too little way and way too late. (Amusingly, there are aspects to this atonement that are just as creepy, exploitative and inexplicable as his initial sins.) As for the developments involving the Alana character, they may yield the film’s one decent song—the newly written “The Anonymous Ones” (all of the others tunes from Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, who also wrote songs for the infinitely better “La La Land” and “The Greatest Showman,” sound as if they were penned specifically to be used as audition pieces for second-tier singing competition shows and are largely forgettable)—but the film has no idea of what to do with her, leading to the bizarre development where she commits a startling act that kicks the final act into gear and then practically disappears from the proceedings.

And yet, even if screenwriter Steven Levenson, adapting his own book, and director Stephen Chbosky had somehow managed to figure out a way to make the material palatable, it probably wouldn’t have made a difference because the film also suffers from one of the most disastrous casting decisions in recent memory by having Platt recreate his Tony-winning performance as Evan. When he won that award, he was 23 and while that may sound a little long-in-the-tooth to be playing a teenager, I can see how it might have still worked thanks to the inherently stylized nature of stage performances in general as well as the medium’s lack of unforgiving closeups. As I am writing these words, he is a couple of days shy of his 28th birthday and to see him and the film attempt to pass him off as someone roughly a decade younger is arguably the cringiest element in a film jam-packed with them. I hasten to add that my problem is not specifically the fact that an obvious adult is trying to pass onscreen as a teenager because that is a familiar enough sight and can be done effectively when handled correctly. Hell, costar Kaitlyn Dever is also several years past her high school days but she manages to sell the illusion thanks to her performance—indeed, her work here is one of the few things about it that isn’t an embarrassment.

Actually, the real problem isn’t so much his presence as the ways in which he and Chbosky have attempted to make him pass for younger, which inevitably only serve to underline rather than minimize the problem at hand. Using what appears to be a combination of makeup and possibly some digital post-production trickery along with some unfortunate wardrobe choices, he doesn’t look like a high school senior as much as he does a 40-year-old man attempting to impersonate a 12-year-old in some kind of bizarro skit. Every time the film cuts to a closeup or even a medium shot of Platt, the illusion that he is a teenager is shattered to such a degree that the whole thing begins to feel like the newly resurgent Martin Short cult favorite “Clifford” played as a dirge. Even worse, the sight of him trying to pass as a teenager forlornly wandering the halls of his high school only serves to make its already batshit premise come across as even creepier, if such a thing is possible.

In hindsight, it would appear that “Dear Evan Hansen” is this generation’s equivalent to the grossly overrated “Rent,” another Broadway musical that appeared at just the right moment in time to capture the zeitgeist, Broadway-style, despite containing enormous conceptual and artistic flaws that people were evidently unwilling to forgive or ignore until the movie version made them too glaring to ignore. (Actually, the film has two other points in comparison with “Rent”—Chbosky also worked on the adaptation of that one as well and that film featured members of the original Broadway cast in roles that they were plainly too old to convincingly portray.) As a coming-of-age narrative, it is as insipid as can be and as a musical, it is relentlessly flat, especially in comparison to such glorious recent works as “In the Heights” and the crackpot masterpiece “Annette.” Those who loved the show when it first appeared may find it fairly embarrassing to regard nowadays while newcomers are likely to be either unimpressed or appalled. Put it this way—I almost elected to conclude this review with some form of “return to sender” joke but “Dear Evan Hansen” is so punishingly bad that it doesn’t even deserve a joke as hackneyed as that one.

link directly to this review at https://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=32169&reviewer=389
originally posted: 09/23/21 02:04:42
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2021 Toronto Film Festival For more in the 2021 Toronto Film Festival series, click here.

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USA
  24-Sep-2021

UK
  N/A

Australia
  24-Sep-2021


Directed by
  Stephen Chbosky

Written by
  Steven Levenson

Cast
  Ben Platt
  Julianne Moore
  Kaitlyn Dever
  Amy Adams
  Danny Pino
  Colton Ryan



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