I said from the beginning the mediocre, poorly written and critically overrated Broadway musical Dear Evan Hansen would not translate comfortably to the movie screen, and I was right. It’s a gushingly naïve, awkwardly-directed mess, working desperately to lure movie audiences expecting big entertainment or even a small tearjerker — but instead it is one of the year’s saddest disappointments.
Everything that could go wrong manages to do it in spades. Even in the confinement of a small theatrical stage with no set changes, the serious subject of teenage suicide set to dismal, empty-headed rock tunes seemed cramped and trivial. But somehow the movie screen is too big to accommodate so much angst. It opens up the material so that people still sing their heads off, but the same awful songs are staged all over the place — at the dinner table, in the high school cafeteria, behind steering wheels and cemetery tombstones, and across the gymnasium floor. Predictably, the material goes nowhere, slogging on endlessly. At two hours and 17 minutes, the movie is too long and feels like double the time. The whole agonizing experience is more like an open-casket viewing than a musical.
DEAR EVAN HANSEN ★
The small premise passing for a plot is largely untouched from Broadway. Dear Evan Hansen says loneliness knows no boundaries and plays no favorites. Evan is a miserable high school senior so insecure he’s on the verge of a breakdown. He talks fast and incoherently, he trips over his own inability to form complete sentences, he’s intelligent but nearly catatonic, like the savant Dustin Hoffman played in Rain Man. He has a crush on a girl named Zoe, but he’s so clueless about sex that he wouldn’t know how to say hello to her with a gun pointed at his head. His only female companion is his mom, a struggling, overworked nurse who wants to save her son from a dead-end life but whose own place in the social fabric is so bleak she doesn’t know where to begin. Awkward, frightened of living, in need of affection, and a near-recluse from the world, Evan worries so much that his hands sweat, including the one that is in a cast following a fall from a tree. He’s a neurotic tango of jerky nerves and stammering noises whose eyes open into a wide abyss like a mental patient, unable to focus on anyone face-to-face. He’s the kind of misfit that is meant to be touching and sympathetic, but as played by Ben Platt, grows irritating fast. Mr. Platt won a Tony for the role onstage, but as a 28-year-old playing a 17-year-old, he does not come off well on screen.
As part of his therapy for depression, Evan follows his shrink’s advice to write a letter to himself, pouring out his troubles on a computer. But the letter is stolen by a bullying fellow student with even bigger mental disorders named Connor, who commits suicide. Everyone thinks Connor wrote the “Dear Evan Hansen” letter, mistaking it for a love letter to Evan, and believes it was left it behind as a suicide note. In the landslide of convoluted mechanical contrivances that follow, Evan gets involved in a campaign to make a martyr out of Connor, wins over Zoe (who turns out to be the dead boy’s sister), gets himself emotionally adopted by Connor’s family (who mistakenly think he’s their son’s closest and most intimate friend, to the resentment of Evan’s own mother), and turns into a sensation on social media. Instead of clearing up the confusion, Evan enjoys his new status as a celebrity hero and perpetuates a perjury that turns into an elaborate hoax, including fake emails that keep him attached to Connor’s family and close to Zoe. With the pretend letters, Evan turns the drug-addicted, mean-spirited Connor into a role model for youth whose legacy accelerates through social media. In a score of one-note, one-dimensional pop-rock tunes, without a trace of anything resembling a melody, Evan is joined by nerdy classmates, duped parents and even the ghost of Connor himself. The songs are by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, the same team of hacks who did their level best to ruin the movie La La Land (the score of which, when compared with Dear Evan Hansen, sounds like the complete works of Rodgers and Hammerstein).
This pretty much leaves an otherwise game cast to fend for themselves. Everybody sings and sings and sings again. Surprisingly, they do it well. Amy Adams and Danny Pino, as Connor’s grief-stricken parents, hold their own without any direction by Stephen Chbosky that anyone could call nuanced, and a script by Steven Levenson that lacks any form of sophistication or originality. The happiest discovery is Julianne Moore as Evan’s anguished, long-suffering mother. She is as accomplished a singer as she is an actress. She makes blandness three-dimensional. Ben Platt, I’m sorry to say, finds no new dimensions to the role of Evan. He doesn’t photograph well, his tenor tremolo grows obnoxious, and he fails to elevate a basically unpleasant role into something beyond preposterous. Let’s face it, Evan Hansen is actually a hateful, self-serving character who becomes a phony symbol of peace, tolerance and compassion by using others for his own gain.
In the end, of course, after the consequences of his lies come crashing down around him in a wreckage of human lives, everybody forgives everybody else and they all feel like they’ve grown wiser from a positive experience. But in my opinion, Evan grows no wiser. He just grows lichens.
Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.