Review: ‘Dear Evan Hansen’ movie is an embarrassment

The musical should have never wandered off of Broadway.

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Alexandra Mettler

The movie adaptation of the musical “Dear Evan Hansen” was released on Sept. 24. The film, which stars Ben Platt as Evan, has disappointed fans of the stage musical. (Photo by Alexandra Mettler)

By Holden Lay, Staff Writer

Greek tragedy, excessive hubris — “Dear Evan Hansen” made Ben Platt shine on Broadway, but the film breaks him into pieces. The director, the creative team and the producers — one of which is his dad — decided that 28-year-old Platt was the best person to play a 17-year-old high schooler. They were wrong. Caked under a thousand pounds of makeup, Platt looked like a cross between a horrifying monster and a slice of angel food cake.

A quick summary for those unfamiliar with the acclaimed stage version: “Dear Evan Hansen” follows the eponymous teen, a loner who faces social anxiety and bullying at school. His therapist and mother encourage him to write letters to himself, prefaced with “Dear Evan Hansen,” as an exercise. However, when one of these letters is stolen by another student — Connor Murphy, who tragically commits suicide soon after — Connor’s parents mistake it for their son’s suicide note. Consequently, they believe Hansen to be Connor’s friend instead of the letter’s writer. 

What starts as a series of small lies under pressure gets way out of hand for Hansen. He becomes the figurehead of a movement, both at his school and nationally via social media, to commemorate Connor’s legacy and send a positive message about mental health and suicide prevention. Despite the many positives, like gaining popularity at school and getting a girlfriend, Hansen is forced to reckon with the guilt that comes out of his own tragic lie. 

Even in this terribly melodramatic adaptation — it is full of cringe-worthy scenes where Hansen digs himself deeper and deeper into his lies — I still found myself invested in the outcome of the story. Oh, and there are tight and catchy pop showtunes — from veteran Broadway composers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul! 

Having first played the role onstage in workshops at age 20, the now 28-year-old Platt looks 40. Everything you’ve heard is true — with an estimated budget of $28 million, the makeup is so egregiously awful that the effect veers into the uncanny valley. From the second he appears on-screen, the film is dead. His monstrous mosquito-bite-esque appearance gets under your skin like a tick — no joke, it never gets better. Everytime the camera cuts back to him, it’s like registering the horror for the first time. It’s impossible to become invested when Ben Platt looks nothing like himself and certainly not like a teenager. 

How the team behind the film — which is helmed by “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” director Stephen Chbosky — could miss the mark so painfully is a mystery to me. Another detriment is their refusal to direct attention to the many other young and qualified actors who’ve played the role (such as the now 19-year-old Andrew Barth Feldman who followed in Platt’s footsteps on Broadway). At the very least, they could’ve got Platt some better makeup.

Ben Platt and Kaitlyn Dever as Evan Hansen and Zoe Murphy. (Image courtesy of Universal Pictures)

If looking at the main character is enough to total the viewing experience like a car wreck, the film plunges deeper into sheer awfulness when Platt opens his mouth. His performance is foul — perhaps one of the most misguided and pathetic attempts at not knowing when to quit that I’ve ever seen. Maybe such a big stink wouldn’t have been made about his age if Ben Platt wasn’t so contrived in the film. To his credit, the script translates pitifully from the praised stage production to film. Nonetheless, Platt is unfathomable. He is so unnatural as a student in high school that I began to wonder if he’d ever attended one himself.

Constantly looking lost, Platt’s delivery is stilted, his characterization is one-note and his depiction of Hansen’s potentially dimensional and interesting social anxiety is rendered flat. His skills as a performer in the stage musical don’t translate — he looks like he has no idea where he should be looking while singing. He rarely looks like he is communicating with the other actors. He seems content to leave himself at the mercy of the awful screenplay.

The complexity of the character present in the staged version is completely gone. Here, Evan Hansen is so unlikeable and shallow that he is almost impossible to care about. This is in spite of changes to the original script to make him more easy to root for despite his awful actions, such as altering the ending to splice in some sort of stale redemption arc. One can only call Chbosky’s attempts at directing cowardly. He seems afraid to make any choices that make the movie unique. His choices — plot alterations and new songs that balloon the film to a 137 minute runtime — only hinder the final product.

With “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” Chbosky showed that he is more than capable of adapting an existing work, so why does he seem so content here with taking his hands fully off the wheel? There is zero reason why this should’ve been made into a film other than the fact that you can sell far more tickets to a movie than a musical. 

The screenplay is lazy and inconsiderate of cinema as a form. So much of it just doesn’t read on film and comes across as corny when it tries to beg the audience for emotional investment. Nearly every other element is just as unambitious. Translated almost directly from Broadway to the film, the choreography and stage projections created a stilted and inconsistent effect. As for cinematography, there are only a handful of shots that demonstrate any creativity. 

Platt, Chbosky and the rest of the creative team are not the only guilty ones. Nearly every other actor is at their worst. Julianne Moore, one of my favorite actresses ever, is Hansen’s working single-mother, Heidi, who feels like a cardboard cut-out of a human being. When she finally performs a song in the film’s third act, it is clear why it took us so long to hear her sing. Danny Pino is also flat as Connor’s father but he manages to squeeze out some intriguing moments as he grieves the loss of his son.

Amy Adams — another actress whose work I often love — plays Connor’s mother. She delivers perhaps the worst performance in the film. It is like she isn’t even trying to be more than a vessel for words. So many of her serious lines elicited audible laughter in the theater — although this was not uncommon during the film as a whole — she spent much of her screentime pandering for a reaction that never came. It pains me to say that it is reminiscent of her strained performance in last year’s “Hillbilly Elegy.”

The film’s only salvation comes in the form of “Atypical” actor Nik Dodani, who delivers sharp and successful comedic relief as Hansen family friend Jared. The “Booksmart” actress Kaitlyn Dever plays Connor’s younger sister Zoe; the 24-year-old pulls off the mannerisms and behavior of a high school student in a way that only makes Platt look worse. She has perhaps the most complex role in the script. As she falls into a romantic relationship with Hansen, she is forced to grapple with her own identity and emotions in the wake of her brother’s suicide, as well as how to deal with Hansen’s deception when it is revealed. She is the only one who manages to develop a character that feels three-dimensional and as a result, many of her scenes are believable despite the screenplay. Her best moments are a breath of fresh air in what is far too often a boring slog.

Overall, Chbosky’s massive failure is a masterclass in how not to adapt a musical to film. Nobody here seems to understand that what works on stage rarely works the same way on film. Its putrid performances and aversion to change come across poorly through this medium. The director softens much of the conflict that might arise in the viewer and make the proceedings interesting, seemingly out of fear of generating an unlikeable main character — which Chbosky and Platt can’t seem to avoid doing anyway. Clunky additions aiming for the same purpose draw it out to an unbearable length. Some movie musicals suffer from overcomplicating their source material but “Dear Evan Hansen” steamrolls it where it counts. 

Worst of all, the staged version’s musical numbers become somehow thoroughly forgettable. When I think back to my experience with the film, it barely even registers that the musical numbers were there. Almost nobody involved does anything but embarrass themselves — Platt and Adams being the worst offenders — and the film is just so hard to sit through. But with its massively underperforming $7.5 million opening weekend, what do I know? At least “Cats” made some bold choices.

Contact Holden Lay at [email protected]