Movie Review: “Dear Evan Hansen” shows up in the Dead Letter Office

Let’s put all the “Dear Evan Hansen” bashing into context, shall we?

Here’s what 2021, what was supposed to be our post-pandemic year at the movies, has given us in musical form. “Everybody’s Talking About Jamie,” felt dated and quaint, but wasn’t bad. “In the Heights” wasn’t remotely in the same league with Lin-Manuel Miranda’s follow-up, “Hamilton,” and lacks the charm of his Netflix cartoon musical “Vivo.” “Come from Away” was captured, on stage, where its small-town-does-big-things conceit works. There was also the Sparks Brothers’ quasi-daring, generally unsatisfying “Annette,” and another “Cinderella” (Amazon streaming only).

“Hansen,” a winner of half a dozen Tony Awards four years ago, was always going to be the weakest of that lot, pretty much by default. And let’s hope it remains that way as “Tick Tick…Boom!” and a remake of “West Side Story” are yet to come.

Why list the other adaptations or composed for the screen musicals surrounding it? Every Broadway era is filled with forgettable and forgotten musicals, some of them with a bookshelf covered with Tonys to show for it. A Broadway Twitter take that I read worried “that people will think everything Broadway produces” is as middling as this dramatically-limp take on the squishy social media-age “bullied/anxious/you’re not alone” obsession, one built on over-performed and instantly-forgettable songs that sound like ’90s Christian Pop radio anthems.

Maybe Broadway’s long obsession with the tourist trade has rubbed some of the edges off musical theater. Because this isn’t “The Book of Mormon” or “Hamilton.” Lump “Evan” in with “Jamie,” in with the legions of film adaptations (“Waitress,” “Billy Elliot”) or even “High School Musical.” The emotions reached for are as generic and blandly predictable as the music.

“Dear Evan Hansen” is a tale of grief and a serio-comic mistake in the middle of that mourning that turns into a sort of life-affirming prank.

A show that grapples with the fragility of today’s middle-class-and-up adolescents — anxious, isolated, medicated and bullied, in person and online — it becomes a film that takes a long time to find that “grief,” one whose lighter moments are few and generally trite. And it’s a movie that needed to recast its plummy-voiced lead with a younger, lesser singer better able to convey high school angst.

Director Stephen Chbosky did “Perks of Being a Wallflower,” a wonderful film set in a similar high school angsty and upper-classish milieu. But as the film was produced by the father of Ben Platt, the Tony winner in the title role, that “let’s make it more real” move was never going to happen.

Platt plays Hansen as the classic wallflower, almost friendless, anonymous, and singing about it.

“Step out, step outta the sun, if you keep getting burned.”

He crushes on rich girl Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever), guitarist with the Westview High pep band, and can’t express that to her. He confides in his “only friend,” the droll, bitchy and gay Jared (Nick Dodani of TV’s “Atypical”), who corrects him with the put-down, “we’re FAMILY friends,” as in their parents know each other and thus, they’re not close.

Evan, fragile and in therapy and on three different anti-anxiety medications, has a couple of rough encounters with the troubled Connor Murphy (Colton Ryan), Zoe’s older brother, given to threatening outbursts but plainly going through things himself.

That’s how Evan’s “write a self-affirming letter to yourself every day” assignment from his unseen therapist blows up in his face. All his worries, anxieties, his crush on Zoe, laid out in a couple of paragraphs that he prints out, and that Connor finds and takes from him.

Evan’s worst fear is that the jerk will post it online. He never considers that the jerk will go home, kill himself, and his “Dear Evan Hansen” letter found on Connor’s body will read like a compassionate reaching out to a friend, and a sad suicide note addressed to that friend seemingly composed by a raging, medicated, in-and-out-of-mental-hospitals ticking bomb that no one in their high school will miss.

“Dear Evan Hansen” is about Connor’s family reaching out and questioning the kid about her dead son’s “secret” life and secret friend, about the Evan’s lie-on-the-fly inventions, words of comfort about that dead son and their non-existent friendship. And it’s about how that misguided but understandable string of lies, just to make Connor’s mom (Amy Adams) feel better, build and spread and reinvent Connor’s image, and in the end, blows up in everybody’s faces.

Evan’s ulterior motives concern getting closer to Zoe, who hated her brother, who could be cruel and self-absorbed and sucked up all her parents’ (Danny Pino plays the stepdad) energy and attention.

Evan’s “comforting” efforts include inventing email exchanges with the help of Jared. “Sincerely Me,” a trio number about composing these fanciful notes in a way that won’t make the “friends” look like same-sex lovers, is the lone light moment in “Dear Evan Hansen,” and is inventively staged and filmed as Evan and Jared try drafts and ideas out that the dead Connor, wandering the halls of their high school as if he never died, sings and corrects and sings again.

“Cause all it takes is a little reinvention, it’s easy to change if you give it your attention.”

A “new” Connor emerges, post-mortem. And the school’s popular, hyper-active activist student body and every-other-club president Alana (Amandla Stenberg of “The Hate You Give,” “Everything Everything” and TV’s “The Eddy”) grabs onto paying tribute to their dead classmate as her latest cause.

Things mushroom from there.

What took me aback about the film was how nobody in Connor’s family is riven with grief. Amy Adams can make us cry at the drop of tear, but the film makes Mother and Stepdad and can’t-process-her-mixed-feelings daughter work and work and work towards anything resembling a realistic response to a child’s suicide.

The whole Connor as their “substitute son” business left me cold. Julianne Moore, cast as Evan’s always-working nurse-mother, may have a solo and a couple of decent scenes, but seems wasted in a part that’s thinly-developed.

The pall that hangs over the story never lets the tumbling dominoes of lies develop the kind of comic momentum that would have energized the picture. “Meet John Doe” and other plays and films have a similar premise — a letter mistaken for something it isn’t, layers of comical lies cover that up, etc. It just doesn’t come to life here.

On the plus side, Adams and Moore have a confrontation that is brittle and bitter, but even that falls just short of what it might have been.

The radiant Stenberg almost steals the picture as the classic “always moving” “popular” girl who lets Evan know they have more in common than he realizes. Prescriptions, for starters. She has a nice, reflective and somber solo that she co-wrote for the film, “The Anonymous Ones.”

“The parts we can’t tell, we carry them well, but that doesn’t mean they’re not heavy.”

Ryan is properly volcanic as Connor, a kid people would stay away from and no one truly understands. Dever (“Booksmart”) gives us a taste of how a grittier, more realistic “Dear Evan” might have played. She’s not a bad singer, either.

And Dondani is kind of amusing playing the gay-not-quite-best-friend cliche.

But Platt’s been playing the guy so wrong he embellishes every lyrical line with distracting musical flourishes. The show-off. It’s a mannered performance that never lets us forget it’s a “performance.”

The social media aspect of the story is tired, even if it wasn’t when this show hit Broadway. There’s a squishy, undefined quality about the “problem” this musical is addressing, and that goes for the feel-good cultural myth that being told “you’re not alone” is a comfort or even part of a “solution” to what’s gone wrong with Evan’s, Connor’s, Zoe’s and Alana’s lives.

I dare say every review of this adaptation has the words “well-intentioned” in it. “Sweet,” too. So it is. But if that’s the best thing you can say about it, well…

Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic material involving suicide, brief strong language and some suggestive reference

Cast: Ben Platt, Kaitlyn Dever, Colton Ryan, Amy Adams, Amandla Stenberg, Danny Pino, Nik Dondani, and Julianne Moore

Credits: Directed by Stephen Chbosky, scripted by Steven Levenson, based on his stage musical, music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. A Universal release.

Running time:

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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