“Dear Evan Hansen” is a twisted kind of accomplishment I suppose…a textbook example of how not to adapt a Broadway play to film.
That’s not the kind of achievement any film would desire, but nonetheless, the true marvel of this cinematic disaster is how Hollywood managed to take a critically acclaimed musical which had been lavished with awards (including six Tonys), and turned it into faux inspirational schlock.
The treacly tone isn’t altogether surprising, since such source material is typically watered down to a certain degree. Just see the recent film adaptation of “In the Heights,” which removed more than a few of the darker implications to its residents’ stories in its efforts to give us a feel-good experience.
So why exactly is “In the Heights” more than fresh at 94%, while “Dear Evan Hansen” has been saddled with a dismal 33 as of this writing? The answer is in those devilish details. “Heights” had a whole ensemble and a setting bursting with character to carry it past its more inept moments, while “Evan Hansen” places its awkward protagonist front and center in a blandly familiar suburban setting.
Centering a character the movie is actually named for would seem like a no-brainer, but a little outside perspective is crucial here, especially with a character who acts as despicably as Evan Hansen (Ben Platt) does. A lonely high school teenager who suffers from anxiety, he is mistakenly believed to be a close friend of Connor Murphy (Colton Ryan), a student who committed suicide. Rather than come clean, he pretends he was Connor’s best friend, and events quickly spiral from there.
Evan actually shouldn’t be that difficult to sympathize with. But the movie quickly gets off on the wrong foot, with Evan bemoaning his woes before we’ve even had a chance to get to know him and see how he interacts with the world. Sure, we quickly learn that Evan is the kind of kid who’s usually a walking target, but not in a way that encourages us to feel for him. Even if most of us have experienced a certain form of teenage mortification, Evan is almost painfully unfunny, with no self-esteem. That his peers ignore him is probably the best case scenario.
So it’s easy to see why the deceased Connor becomes a lifeline for him. His mother Cynthia (Amy Adams) is desperate to believe her troubled son not only had a friend, but a good, kind side to him, while even his sister Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever), who often bore the brunt of her brother’s darkest moments – which included him kicking down a door while screaming he was going to kill her – is able to think more fondly of Connor.
Evan has long harbored a crush on Zoe, and his status as her brother’s friend and confidante allows him to finally talk to her and form a relationship with her, gaining entry to her loving family and their environs, which includes their upper middle class home with fashionably exposed brick. How could he resist really, especially when his supportive single mother Heidi (Julianne Moore) is forced to work extra shifts to keep them afloat?
The source material may have had its share of criticisms, but it knew how to win over audiences and compassionately portray a kind of anti-hero who embodied some of our worst qualities. Changing a balance so delicately contrived was always going to be a risk, and it does not go over well. It’s a tragic waste, especially when director Stephen Chbosky so skillfully directs such everyday settings into the feel of an indie drama with real emotional resonance.
The laughable thing is the one element that should have changed is Platt himself, who won a Tony for his performance in the Broadway production. At 27, it would be easy to say he’s too old to play a teenager, but what’s really absent is the vulnerability, the youthful unease that won over audiences. And he’s stripped of practically and all complexity that would allow him to really show us what he’s capable of.
If there’s anything left after over two hours of cringe, it’s from the adults who are actually allowed to be adults, with Adams and Moore imbuing love and a kind of desperate resilience to their roles as mothers who are desperately trying to keep their families together. They, and the rest of the cast, deserve better than this painfully maudlin show that ultimately seems to want it both ways by having the ends justify the means.