I feel let down. I was hoping for a fantastic disaster, a pyrotechnical display of ineptitude, an explosion of cinematic diarrhea—something truly memorable in its badness. Instead, Stephen Chbosky’s adaptation of the Broadway musical about a biped awkward turtle, Dear Evan Hansen, is simply and intolerably dull. It’s death by a thousand winces and stammers.
The main cultural event is not the movie itself, but the discussion that preceded it—the mass flabbergasted response when the movie’s trailer dropped in May, and then the frenzied pile-on when the movie premiered at the Toronto Film Festival earlier this month. Dear Evan Hansen currently holds a dismal 37 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, and the ridicule it has endured has left some Universal employees feeling “hurt and disappointed at the early response to the film,” according to a report. In retrospect, it’s astonishing that anyone on the inside was ever confident about this shallow whimper of a musical’s performance in the first place.
The premise, for those who aren’t aware, is beyond convoluted. Evan Hansen (Ben Platt) is an awkward, medicated (but for our purposes, undiagnosed) high school student with one friend, Jared (Nik Dodani). And, as Jared points out, he’s not even a real friend, but a family friend. As part of his therapy, Evan writes letters to himself and prints them out. A would-be bully with a hair-trigger temper named Connor (Colton Ryan) snatches one of these letters from a communal printer in their school’s library, reads his sister’s name in it (Evan has a crush on her), explodes, and stalks away. Evan is convinced that Connor will put the letter online, thereby embarrassing him, but instead Connor kills himself in a few days. He doesn’t leave a suicide note; the only thing his parents find on him is the letter addressed to Evan Hansen, which they assume their son wrote. They meet with Evan, see that Connor signed his cast (in big block letters to antagonize the meek Evan), and decide that Evan must have been their dead son’s only friend. Evan tries to deny this, but since he has yet to form a spine, fails, and then goes along with this ruse that he’s been backed into. Through his imagined association with a dead classmate, he achieves a heretofore unexperienced social status and the world gets to know Connor. “I don’t understand what happened,” says Evan as his message of...uh, my friend died spreads. “You did,” says Connor’s mom (Amy Adams). Irony!
This may sound like fertile ground for satire on the social effects of death—how it contorts previously uncaring people into compassion, how glomming onto it can be socially advantageous for the living. Were Hansen’s motives premeditated, the premise might also work as a thriller—imagine how much fun it would be to watch someone strike and then flourish after duping people into believing he was unassuming and awkward for years! Instead, Dear Evan Hansen plays it straight and earnest. It makes for an incredibly confusing tone—one that seems on the brink of understanding its own ridiculousness, but never quite getting there. It reminds me of the near-lucid dreams I’ve had where thinking of something makes it manifest, but I then can’t put it together that I’m the one who just made it happen. I wake up feeling stupid.
The tonal disaster of Dear Evan Hansen pales in comparison to the problems with its inert script. Nothing happens! Evan trudges along, endearing himself to Connor’s family and going viral for a speech (actually a song) he delivers at a memorial, and then the inevitable uncovering of his deception occurs and he has to pick up the pieces, learning a little something about...if not life than Connor, at least, in the process. This isn’t a plot, it’s a concept, and there seems to be a sense from all involved here that the music of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (the songwriting team responsible for La La Land and The Greatest Showman) will pull us through. It cannot, sadly, as the songs themselves are flavorless and lack any insight beyond the superficial into human behavior and motivation.
The worst offender here is a song specifically written for the movie, “The Anonymous Ones,” sung by Amandla Stenberg, who plays the Evan’s overachieving (but also medicated!!) classmate Alana. Part of it goes: “Keep on keeping secrets that they think they have to hide/What if everybody’s secret is they have that secret side?/And to know, to know we’re not alone is all we’re hoping for.” What if everybody’s secret is that they have a secret? Are you fucking kidding me? Are they trying to waste our time? Given how little these musical platters of Saltines advance the plot and how much time they take up in this overlong slog, I think the answer must be a yes.
The failings here are in the directing and writing, but many of the performances are at least confounding, if not straight-up bad. As Connor’s mom, Amy Adams is perky—disconcertingly so for someone whose son just killed himself. Julianne Moore is all struggling single mom cliches. In the third act, she sings through one of her patented ugly cries. “Oh no,” I said aloud when she started. Much of the Dear Evan Hansen ridicule has been directed at Platt, who looks way too old to be playing a teenager (especially a teenager who adults talk to like a toddler). Platt’s throaty singing lands somewhere between Josh Groban and Tarzan, and he seems to be covered in a thin film of grease at all times. I’ve seen people speculate that he wore facial prosthetics for this movie, but I haven’t seen that confirmed. In any event, he’s distracting, which is the last thing he should be as the center of a movie. The net effect of Dear Evan Hansen is PEN15 made by people who have never met teenagers, and in fact never were teenagers themselves.
It’s such a confusing tangle of blah that it actually took a promo video of civilians enthusing about the movie to set me straight. Oh, you’re supposed to feel for the friendless Evan while watching this movie. This is a call for empathy, not judgement. The movie rather deliberately asks you to turn off your brain.
There is some confusion from Dear Evan Hansen’s supporters as to why the backlash is so strong. This is alleged in the “insider” report quoted above and evident in some of the more positive reviews. There is, naturally, a piling on effect that happens online, and this particular one comes close to the kind of redundancy visible in online attacks when admitted flaws are then mocked anyway. Ben Platt is playing an awkward kid; in response people say, “Haha, he’s awkward.” But what’s going on with Dear Evan Hansen is worse than misguided aesthetic decisions—there’s a real sense here of coasting good will this project accrued in its theatrical form. I got the feeling that my time was being wasted. When a cultural punching bag of Dear Evan Hansen’s magnitude comes along, it’s tempting to push back and wonder if people are just joining a mob to be mean. But disasters like Sia’s execrable Music and the 2019 Cats adaptation appear to want to dupe us: They waste our time and insult our intelligence, offering nothing in return. They aren’t even good at being bad. About these particular trainwrecks, in which it’s difficult to even squeeze some campy fun from, I say: Let people not enjoy things.