Oh, the irony of a sensitive movie about depressed and socially maladroit people — thrust into the spotlight for the wrong reasons — getting pummeled in the press. Such is the fate of “Dear Evan Hansen,” which has faced an onslaught of backlash for allowing 27-year-old Ben Platt to portray the same anxious teenager he originated in the Broadway show.
As Evan, who pretends he was besties with an alienated classmate after he commits suicide, Platt is stepping into shoes he first inhabited in 2016, shortly after he reached legal drinking age. And yes, it does look a little strange, though the movie’s greatest hurdles stem more from its uneasy relationship to the big-screen medium. On stage, Evan’s plight as he becomes an accidental viral star for fake-grieving the friend he never had utilized every inch of its set design. Large screens often surrounded the action and dwarfed the characters onstage, epitomizing the rush of social media discourse and its potential to exaggerate circumstances beyond the control of its subjects.
In the movie, the online mythmaking that emerges from Evan’s lie takes the form of floating squares that converge to form the singular image of the dead teen’s face, a special effect so corny it feels like an earnest version of the exact phenomena it’s designed to deconstruct. Many of director Stephen Chbosky’s choices lack the sophistication necessary to grapple with the story at hand.
While some have decried “Dear Evan Hansen” for trivializing mental illness, that itself isn’t an argument against creative risk. There’s a subversive concept baked into the material that was achieved to far greater effect in Bobcat Goldthwait’s underappreciated Robin Williams vehicle “World’s Greatest Dad,” in which the Williams character allows his dead teen son to be valorized even though he was a terrible person. By contrast, “Dear Evan Hansen” struggles to achieve tonal nuance in part because it strives to bring us into the center of Evan’s story and see the drama through his eyes. The language of storytelling unique to the movies — the closeup — ultimately becomes this adaptation’s Achilles’ Heel.
Which is fascinating, because this Tony-winning property missed out on a huge opportunity to become a hit movie in some fashion at least four years ago, when Platt finished up his run on the show. That was just a few months after the original “Hamilton” cast finished up their own spectacular Broadway run, but before they left, director Thomas Kail and a team of a camera operators captured the stage performance with dynamic angles and constant motion that helped migrate the dazzling experience of watching the show live into the small screen.
In the case of “Dear Evan Hansen,” only bits and pieces of the stage recording survive in public, aside from the one preserved by the New York Public Library’s Theatre on Film and Tape Archive. That may not be enough to attract a future life on a major streaming platform, where other hit shows have found new life.
The “Hamilton” undertaking yielded a burgeoning market for live stage captures, and even as Broadway reopens, it’s a development unlikely to go away anytime soon. The best Broadway shows make a case for their own existence: If there’s an innovative way to transform “Hamilton” into a traditional musical, bring on “The Room Where It Happens,” but what beats the electricity of Leslie Odom Jr. swirling around the stage as he careens into the show’s iconic silhouette in real time? Likewise, the joy of “Come From Away,” which was taped during the pandemic and came out on AppleTV+, revolves around the way its cast of 12 actors hustle about the stage while constantly transforming into dozens of characters over the course of what looks like an exhausting two hours.
In both cases, these documents of beloved stage performances manage to convey the distinct energy of the stage while utilizing a toolkit of cinematic trickery to enhance their impact. Even when the camera gets close to its characters, it doesn’t stay there for long.
By contrast, the movie version of “Dear Evan Hansen” retains an uncomfortable familiarity with Platt’s face, to the point where his stunned gaze and pasty white complexion hew closer to serial killer vibes than the fragility of an emotionally confused kid in over his head. It’s unfortunate for Platt, a talented singer with a natural stage presence, who now looks out of his element with the same material that put him on the map.
The closeup can be killer for musicals. (Yes, Anne Hathaway won an Oscar for a single closeup for “I Dreamed a Dream” in “Les Miserables,” but it’s the histrionic exception that proves the rule.) “It’s harder to do,” Lin-Manuel Miranda told IndieWire earlier this year, in the midst of his “In the Heights” press tour. “When you go into a theater, you know they’re going to burst into song. It’s a given. But there’s a bit of resistance when the camera is here.”
He held up his hands and made a box around his face. “Solving that is always tricky,” he said. “I have viewed every creative choice I’ve made since ‘Hamilton’ as a way to solve how to tell musical stories on film.”
It remains to be seen how Miranda attacks the challenge with his own directorial debut, “Tick Tick Boom,” an adaptation of Jonathan Larson’s autobiographical off-Broadway show, though the snazzy, scene-twisting trailer for the Netflix production seems engineered to convey the antithesis of a stationary stage production. At the very least, Miranda’s own remarks indicate a keen awareness of the challenge at hand, and as musicals ramp up productions across the industry, it’s one worth sorting out.
To that end, “Dear Evan Hansen” provides a teachable moment well worth scrutinizing, in part because it’s not an abject failure. Its standout number remains “Sincerely, Me,” a comical bit in which Evan and his pal Jared (Nik Dodani) fabricate emails in the voice of the dead Connor (Colton Ryan). On the stage, the scene found the two living teens singing through the letter while their fantasy version of Connor sings their written words nearby; that concept has been reborn as a montage, which fits nicely with the recurring punchline that finds Jared regularly interrupting Evan’s lines to make them more believable (“Smoking drugs?” “Just fix it!”).
The resulting song number is an energizing comical showstopper that manages to acknowledge the twisted nature of the circumstances even as it literally dances around them with glee. Another highlight comes from one of the movie’s new songs, “The Anonymous Ones,” which was co-written by Amandla Stendberg and finds the talented performer conveying her character’s admission of her own depressive tendencies as a gentle ballad so precise in terms of the anguish it puts on screen that it makes the case for her as the movie’s real protagonist.
But nothing can salvage Julianne Moore as Evan’s concerned mom when she belts out “So Big / So Small” while she and Platt just sit in a medium shot on the couch. Moore sings well enough, but the pedestrian nature of the physical circumstances on the screen sit uneasily alongside the somber acoustic song meant to convey a major cathartic moment in the plot.
Watching Moore sing in “Dear Evan Hansen” brings up inevitable comparisons to a far more memorable time when she carried a tune onscreen, albeit briefly, for that movie’s iconic rendition of Aimee Mann’s “Wise Up.” Consider the slow-build emotional depths of that sequence, and how well it fuses with the overarching melancholic mood of the preceding ensemble piece, even though up until that point it hasn’t been a musical at all.
The surreal alchemy of the cast, frozen in place in various stages of grief and frustration, gels perfectly with the measured, dreamlike cadences of the song in question. Paul Thomas Anderson does what he wants, and that’s what makes this outlandish gamble work so well: Movies can break rules and invent new experiences that would never work on the stage, but that’s often because they were designed to work within the language of the medium in question.
Musicals conceived for the stage bring the baggage of their original form to the screen, and perhaps that baggage is best left untouched.