The ‘Dear Evan Hansen’ movie musical is a manipulative, ridiculous mess | Citizen Pop

*Spoilers ahead for “Dear Evan Hansen,” now in theaters. But really, the trailer gives away about 75% of the movie anyway, so spoilers probably don’t really matter here. And there are spoilers for the movie “Annette.” It’ll make sense once you read it.*

The best part of the “Dear Evan Hansen” film is that box office estimates indicate that it’s bombing in theaters, so at least few people are subjecting themselves to it.

It seems absurd at first that the movie adaptation of the acclaimed stage musical of the same name isn’t putting butts in movie theater seats. The show was a critical darling and became a hit on Broadway in 2016. Audiences flocked to sold out shows and it picked up several Tony Awards, including wins for Best Actor in a Leading Role in a Musical for Ben Platt, who played the titular character, and Best Musical.

This success eventually lead to a film from Universal Pictures. The film received criticism from the moment the first trailer hit the internet, due to its handling of subjects such as suicide and the appearance of Platt, reprising his role from the stage, looking far older than the high school student he is supposed to be.

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The reason why all of those elements worked for upscale Broadway crowds but translated into poor movie ticket sales and endless mockery online becomes clearer once you look at the show’s subject matter, including mental health, suicide, self-worth and more, and its horribly manipulative approaches to these topics. The movie, despite the clear effort and skill of director Stephen Chbosky, songwriters Benji Pasek and Justin Paul, Platt and big name actresses such as Amy Adams and Julianne Moore, is an utter garbage fire. The positive aspects on display can’t save the film from a concept that is rotten to the core.

Maybe a lying, obsessive jerk wasn’t a great subject for an inspirational musical?

Let’s review: Platt’s Evan is a lonely high schooler with severe social anxiety with one arm in a cast due to recently breaking his arm climbing a tree. He is tasked by his therapist to write a letter to himself explaining why each day will be a good one. After a particular hard day, Evan writes a letter to himself saying that today will be a bad day, lamenting that no one listens to him and that maybe things could be better if he talked to Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever), Evan’s longtime crush/object of obsession who he thinks he loves despite barely ever talking to her.

While attempting to print out his letter at school, Evan bumps into Connor (Colton Ryan), Zoe’s brother and the school “psycho,” as he is referred to several times. Connor signs Evan’s cast, saying that they both can pretend they have friends. Connor then sees Evan’s letter to himself and pushes him after thinking Evan deliberately wanted Connor to see it in order to upset him. Connor storms out with the letter, and Evan finds out a few days later from Connor and Zoe’s mother and stepdad (Amy Adams and Danny Pino) that Connor committed suicide, with Evan’s letter to himself found with Connor’s body.

Connor’s parents assume the note, addressed “Dear Evan Hansen,” was written by Connor. They see their son’s name sprawled on Evan’s cast and come to the conclusion that the two were secret best friends. Evan attempts to tell Connor’s parents at first that the letter was actually his own, but ultimately decides to go along with the charade, getting his kind-of friend Jared (Nik Dodani) to create a series of fake emails (!!!) between Evan and Connor. Evan is accepted by Connor’s family and starts dating Zoe, all while continually lying at every turn to these traumatized, vulnerable people about this fake bond he claims he shared with this young man who took his own life.

That’s the premise of the show and the movie. Despite Evan eventually coming clean about his lies and helping the Murphys by tracking down a video of Connor playing a video while he was in rehab, Evan still lies his ass off throughout 75% of the film’s running time. Yet the movie goes out of its way time and time again to try to make the audience feel sympathy for Evan, by showing hints of the trauma he received from his father leaving at an early age, the sad-sounding score kicking in during quieter scenes, and loving close-ups of Platt’s troubled expressions and bug eyes.

Again, Evan does eventually acknowledge that worming his way to the lives of this family and entering a relationship with Zoe under false pretenses was wrong, but it ends with Zoe giving this manipulator an apology he doesn’t deserve, and fades to black on a somewhat upbeat note as Evan acknowledges that he, at the very least, is now being true to himself after he publicly admitted that it was all a ruse. It all rings utterly hollow and even disturbing, when you consider that you Evan’s behavior in the context of his manipulation of these grieving people.

Those who do bad things could still be capable of doing good, but “Dear Evan Hansen”‘s maudlin attempts to portray Evan as a young adult who’s just going through a lot right now while not acknowledging enough how horrible his deeds are make the entire exercise feel even more gross and misguided. If it was known in real life that somebody was doing what Evan does here, there would be an eight-part Netflix docuseries about him instead of an inspirational musical.

Though a lot of the acting is solid (we’ll get to Platt in a bit) and most of the lyrics by Pasek and Paul, who snagged Tonys for Best Original Score for their work, are strong, none of that smooths over the main conceit. In fact, the songs often underscore how much of an deeply uncomfortable mess all of this is.

In “Sincerely Me,” Evan and Jared are creating the fake emails between Evan and Connor, and Jared points out that Evan’s lies make it sound as if he and Connor were lovers. We see a version of Connor singing the fake emails, and Jared has Connor say he rubs his “nipples with delight” upon thinking of Evan. Gay jokes come out of the mouth of the guy who took his own life. Charming.

I know this song is in the stage show, and maybe the original Broadway production handled it better, but this scene in the movie is a tasteless black hole, where charm and humor die a slow death. It even falls flat as shock humor, since the jokes are the same old gags about gay people that movies were trotting out in the ’80s but have never been funny.

If the point of this scene is to endear moviegoers to Evan and Nick, throwing in some gay jokes about the expense of a dead character WHO COMMITTED SUICIDE and whose sexual preference was never confirmed is an incredibly weird way to try to trick people into liking these guys, especially in a show telling people to accept who they are. The dancing from Platt and Ryan is on point, but using the Connor character for a peppy dance number – also the only upbeat tune in the show – demonstrates the contrast between the show’s topics and how they are sometimes handed.

Another, arguably equally embarrassing sequence arrives in the form of the song “If I Could Tell Her.” Zoe mentions to Evan that she and Connor – who we discover at one point used to scream at her – didn’t know each well, but Evan assures her that her brother noticed all sort of things about her, such as that she scribbles stars on her paint legs when she’s bored. It’s clear immediately that all of these are observations Evan has made about her from afar after watching her for years without actually interacting with her.

All of this stalker-like behavior is meant to form the basis of our romantic duet for the film. Although the previous song, “Requiem,” featured Zoe questioning why she should mourn the loss of Connor when he mistreated her, here she suddenly loves hearing all about of the creepy ways her brother spotted her but was never able to talk to about it. After a solid four minutes of wishing you could sink into your movie theater seat, that song, ludicrously, prompts Evan and Zoe to try to kiss before her parents interrupt them.

With the exception of one song we’ll discuss later, director Chbosky struggles to stage the musical numbers with visual flair. Beyond some fake scenarios Evan imagine involving Connor, most of the songs are confined to drably set set pieces such as a a living room couch or a dining table, with some flat close-ups tossed in. Many of the songs start to sound the same after a while, which only adds to the monotony these scenes settle into.

The issues of going from stage to screen

All of that leads to the question of why the stage show was so beloved while the film has been torn apart by online commenters and critics and getting wedgied at the box office. At least a part of the answer lies in the transition of taking “Dear Evan Hansen” from stage to screen. There is a certain amount of suspension of disbelief need for nearly any theater experience, and in this case, you can’t actually construct an entire high school within a stage. So many of the concepts the shows presents are rendered a bit more abstract, because no matter how immersive the show you’re watching is, you’re still watching it play out on a stage within the four walls of a darkened room.

Those ideas are naturally going to come off differently in a movie attempting some semblance of realism. The high school scenes were shot in an actual high school, with lockers people roaming around the halls, and actors who – except for Platt – actually look as if they could conceivably be high school students. Locking the story into more of a natural setting, rather than on stage where the show’s ideas are a bit more abstract, thrusts Evan’s actions into more a real-life context. Examining the barrage of mistruths Evan unleashes in a more realistic way than was originally intended clashes with the inspirational, feel-good tone the production is trying to establish despite the topics at hand.

For comparison, take another recent movie musical. In the excellent and bizarre pop opera “Annette,” the main character also commits horrible acts and manipulates everyone around him. Adam Driver’s protagonist in that film kills a couple people, though, so he is admittedly a worse person than Evan. The difference is that unlike “Dear Evan Hansen,” “Annette” doesn’t try to convince the audience that its main character is actually a good guy in the end. The last scene of that film starts with Driver’s Henry McHenry (yes, that is his actual name) in prison for his crimes, and his daughter eventually tells him that she is incapable of loving him.

He finally begins to see his daughter in a new light after previously not seeing her as a real human being, which hints at a glimmer of growth. That said, the film makes it clear that McHenry is generally an all-around bad guy. “Dear Evan Hansen,” on the other hand, depicts Evan publicly revealing his machinations but it’s not clear that he suffered real consequences, such as his college prospects being harmed in some way. The other kids aren’t talking to him anymore, but that was already mostly his status quo at the start. Zoe even forgives him (but doesn’t start dating him again) and says that she wishes they could have met right there on the day they are currently talking, which seems like way more than this dude deserves.

Another aspect of the movie that has earned Twitter’s ire, and is really the aspect that people have been dunking on the most, is Ben Platt’s casting. Anyone on “film Twitter” has likely caught a stream of memes mocking how much older Platt looks than the high school student he is playing. There have also been accusations of nepotism, considering Platt’s father, Marc Platt, a film and theater producer, produced the “Dear Evan Hansen” movie. The quality of the film aside, the issues raised against the younger Platt aren’t entirely fair or within his control.

Let’s get this out of the way: Yes, Platt looks ridiculous pretending to be a teenager. I don’t know how the production team managed to make a guy who was 27 by the end of filming appear to be 45 even though he was supposed to be playing about 17-18, but they pulled it off. Again, the blame shouldn’t be placed entirely on Platt here. He began portraying the Evan character on stage in Washington D.C. in 2015, and the filming for the big screen production took place in 2020. Anyone who isn’t Paul Rudd or John Stamos is going to visibly age within that five-year span.

That said, Evan is meant to appear as an average, everyday high schooler, and Platt’s appearance in the film is reminiscent of Steve Buscemi in the oft-memed “How do you do, fellow kids?” scene from “30 Rock.” But the camera, hair and costuming departments did Platt no favors. The lighting makes him appear ghostly pale, his haircut makes gives the impression that his hairline is receding and he’s saddled with shirts twice his size. You would think they were trying to make him look ironically hilarious.

Plus, as mentioned earlier, the other actors playing his classmates acting within this actual high school building look far closer to the ages they’re portraying than Platt does, so he sticks out like a sore, sickly white, sweaty thumb. Kaitlyn Dever, who plays Zoe, is apparently 24 but easily passes for a high school student in the film. Pairing her with Platt, who is pushing 30 but appears older than that in the film, adds yet another layer of unease to the film.

Platt also adds another to the wrinkle (pun only partially intended to the whole affair: When you factor in how old he appears to be, it looks like not only is Evan lying about knowing his classmate, but he appears as if he’s also lying about being a teenager.

In terms of Platt’s casting in the stage show, he was closer to the character’s age when he first tackled the role than he is now, and the suspension of disbelief needed for live theater comes into play. Keep in mind, we’re talking about an art form with a time-honored, centuries-long tendency of actors in Shakespeare plays characters half the age of those portraying them. I imagine Platt didn’t seem all that strange on stage, or at least no more egregious than the actors playing the teenage cast in the TV show “Riverdale.”

Although some detractors online have dismissed Platt’s place in the film as simply the result of nepotism, it’s worth remembering that Platt has a long history with the role of Evan. He originated the role even back at its earliest readings in 2014, and brought people in droves when the show hit Broadway in 2016. At age 23, he became the youngest solo victor of the Tony for Best Actor in a Leading Role in a Musical for his performance. His singing for most of the film is strong, and he obviously knows the role and is a skilled performer, producer father or not. His casting for the movie made a lot of sense, at least on paper. I will admit, though, that sometimes Platt plays Evan more as a caricature of someone with anxiety, or a nervous shrug cursed with a human form, rather than a fully-formed character.

The worst part about this cloying mess is that there is some quality to be found. Most of the lyrics paint a sharp picture of how these characters are feeling. Kaitlyn Dever is compelling as Zoe and it’s good to see the underrated Danny Pino as Larry, Connor and Zoe’s stepdad.

Amy Adams is heartbreaking as Cynthia Murphy, leading with a plastered smile that suggests she is moments away from shattering at any moment but is desperate to keep up a façade of control. And I am distressed to report that the opening song, “Waving Through a Window,” has been embedded in my brain since the moment I first saw the movie. Platt hits the hell out of those notes, and Chbosky makes Evan’s bedroom feel claustrophobic as the young man sings about his struggle to be heard as he’s ignored by everyone surrounding him, as if he’s tapping on a window without anyone on the outside hearing him.

At one point, he is framed by a literal window (it’s on the nose, but it’s effective enough) as he sees all of these smiling, seemingly happy go by. Feeling as if everyone but you is happy and successful is fairly universal, especially in the social media age.

These lyrics, where Evan ponders if he ever amount to anything more than what he has ever been, touch on how a lot of young people feel while growing up. I realized while watching the film that I had actually heard some of these songs before, and the original Broadway iteration clearly has a legion of fans. But the fact that all of this effort went towards this absurd, gross film about lying to people is infuriating.

What did you think of the movie (if you actually saw it, for some reason)? Was I utterly wrong in my assessment? Did you agree? Let me know on Twitter @KellyRocheleau. Now, if you’ll please excuse me, I’m going to scrub this movie for my brain and bask in the knowledge that I don’t have to look up the ages of actors anymore!

Staff writer Kelly Rocheleau can be reached at (315) 282-2243 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @KellyRocheleau.