‘Dear Evan Hansen’ Is Out of Tune and Out of Touch
So many choices can make or break a movie. The stakes get even higher with a musical, and they rise to a whole other level when the subject matter is as particular as how someone feels inside. “Dear Evan Hansen” arrives already trailing clouds of fierce debate. It is based on the 2016 Tony and Grammy-award winning stage musical, which focuses on contemporary issues of youth and mental health. Sometimes, however, what has a particular kind of appeal on stage doesn’t always work in the very different terrain of a movie. Director Stephen Chbosky keeps a cold, visual style that tries to give life to rather bland songs. But the entire enterprise is fatally struck down by one of the weirdest casting choices in many moons.
A now 27-year-old Ben Platt takes his role from stage to screen as 17-year-old Evan Hansen, who has social anxiety and shows it in the tense, timid way he walks down the crammed halls of his high school. He has a crush on Zoe Murphy (Kaitlyn Dever), who he gazes at during school assemblies as she plays guitar with the campus band. Life at home is lonely and Evan’s mother, Heidi (Julianne Moore), is a nurse constantly away at work. After a fall that broke his arm, Evan wears a cast and is starting a routine advised by his therapist in which he writes a letter to himself. An unfortunate chance encounter at the school library with Zoe’s unstable brother, Connor (Colton Ryan), results in Connor writing his name on Evan’s cast and taking the letter. The next day Evan is informed that Connor has committed suicide and his letter was the only thing he had with him. This convinces Connor’s parents, Cynthia (Amy Adams) and Larry (Danny Pino) that Evan must have been Connor’s only friend. They begin taking him into their home, hoping he can share insights into their son’s life. So Evan begins a dangerously complicated façade.
“Dear Evan Hansen” is a curious, heartfelt misfire from Chbosky, who in 2012 directed the luminous “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” one of the best high school movies of the last decade, based on his own novel. Above the clunky story, the great elephant in the room is of course the casting of Ben Platt, who as younger man played the original role off and on Broadway from 2016 to 2017 and scored a Tony, which one assumes is the only real justification for casting him in the movie, beyond the fact that his father Marc Platt is behind the film as co-producer. It’s known that from “Grease” to “Riverdale,” older actors play younger roles. The method relies on all the cast being around the same age. Platt looks too distractingly out of place. He doesn’t look like a high school senior dealing with emotional crises, but like a guy in his early 30s who never got over his high school scars. As a performer Platt is obviously talented and has a voice, yet cinema relies on convincingly creating a world on the screen for the audience to take in. When he stares at Zoe during a school gathering, can we really take it seriously? At least when he starts actually dating Zoe the film wisely avoids any make out scenes.
The casting complicates our response to the story because the screenplay by Steven Levenson, who also wrote the original book of the stage production, doesn’t necessarily make Evan likeable. We feel sympathy or pity for his emotional plight involving anxiety, but once he starts misleading the Murphys with well-crafted lies about knowing Connor, the material becomes challenging. Evan is tired of having no family other than his overworked mother, yet that doesn’t necessarily justify his appalling actions. He goes so far as to scheme with friend Jared (Nik Dodani) to craft fake emails between himself and Connor. More impactful is Alana (Amandla Stenberg of “The Hate U Give”), a straight-A, active student who decides to organize a fund to save Connor’s favorite orchard in his memory. She reveals to Evan that despite her poised outside appearance, she too struggles with mental health. She can even guess what medication Evan is on, which dramatically is an effective commentary on a generation where nearly everyone is on something to get by in a rapid, social media-obsessed world. We also feel for Amy Adams as Cynthia, who plays the upper class mother who is so kind but too willing to lie to herself, about Connor and Evan’s supposed friendship with him.
This intricate emotional maze is then expressed in a music score that on stage might be engaging, but on film can turn into a repetitive dirge without the right visual approach. Songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, who also wrote the tunes in “The Greatest Showman,” aren’t after songs you can hum along to or at times even distinguish from each other. A few have energy, like “Anybody Have a Map?” Others have an enticing melody but rather overcooked lyrics like “Requiem.” Chbosky also makes most of the numbers stale with cinematography lacking elegance. The direction tends to have the actors croon their numbers just sitting or standing in the same place, with a few exceptions. You sense this material should be even darker than how it’s presented. Evan Hansen is an emotional time bomb misleading an entire family, including his dream girl, while selfishly chastising a working class mom for working. That a teen musical touches on such subjects is commendable. The approach is what is lacking. In “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” Chbosky told a story of melancholy and youth with an evocative palette full of grainy suburban streets and dreamy light. A story about deception and heartbreak deserved no less.
A question that will long divide opinions and hover over “Dear Evan Hansen” is if it might have worked better with balanced casting. Put aside the songs and Chbosky’s visual approach, and reimagine the material being expressed by a fresh face you could see dating Zoe, talking baseball with Larry and goofing off with Jared. Then it might come close to convincing drama. With Platt the entire undertaking feels more like a needless experiment. Julianne Moore is excellent in her role, bringing out the wounded feelings of a proud mother who wishes she could do more. But next to Platt it’s as odd a pairing as when Angelina Jolie played Colin Farrell’s mother in “Alexander.” Diehard fans of the musical may just forgive these details and bask in watching it brought to a big screen. For everyone else, it’s a lesson that with certain material, age is not just a number.
“Dear Evan Hansen” releases Sept. 24 in theaters nationwide.