The path to the big screen hasn’t been an easy one for “Dear Evan Hansen”, a film adaptation of the 2015 stage show by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. The first trailer for this coming-of-age movie musical dropped back in May, and it only took a viral tweet or two for the film to become a social media punching bag. Much of the criticism centered around the choice to have Ben Platt reprise his Tony-winning role as the titular teen.
Let’s be honest, social media outrage isn’t the most reliable gauge. But in this case, Platt as a 17-year-old is a hard sell and slapping on pasty makeup and a plump crop of curly hair doesn’t help. But the whole age thing isn’t what makes “Dear Evan Hansen” a woefully misguided misfire. Its problems run a lot deeper.
The story kicks off with Platt’s Evan set to begin his senior year of high school. To help with his crippling anxiety, Evan’s therapist recommends that he start each day by writing a motivational letter to himself. “Dear Evan Hansen,” the letters begin. “Today’s going to be an amazing day and here’s why.”
The movie’s portrayal of mental health is hazy at best. Look no further than Evan himself who early on isn’t just socially awkward but almost nonfunctional. His inability to muster a single sentence to anyone other than his jerk of a “family friend” Jared (Nik Dodani ) hints at severe social anxiety. His several prescriptions point to depression. We even see evidence of possible autism. And then there is his childlike body language that comes across as paralyzing insecurity mixed with Platt’s exaggerated attempts to look younger.
The queasier stuff comes after his letter to himself is swiped by a bully and fellow outcast named Connor (Colton Ryan). A few days later Evan is summoned to the principal’s office where Connor’s parents, (Amy Adams and Danny Pino), inform him that their troubled son had committed suicide and they found Evan’s letter with him. They mistakingly take the letter as a sign that Connor actually had a close friend.
Evan tries to correct the grieving couple’s misunderstanding at first. But so hungry for human connection and with a particularly icky crush on Connor’s sister Zoe (a terrific Kaitlyn Dever), Evan turns the misunderstanding into a full-blown lie. Soon it takes on a life of its own as word of his fictional friendship gains him sympathy from his classmates. And after his speech/song at a school memorial service goes viral, Evan becomes a social media sensation.
The more devilish part of Evan’s ruse is in his scenes with the Murphy’s. At first he doesn’t have the heart to tell them the truth about their son. But he relishes their attention, the kind he doesn’t get at home from his hard-working and rarely present single mother (Julianne Moore). So he ingratiates himself with the family through bigger and more elaborate lies. Even worse is Evan’s manipulation of Zoe which makes him look like a creep despite the film’s efforts to paint him otherwise.
Sprinkled in among all the weird and unsavory drama is a mixed bag of pop ballads from Pasek and Paul (the duo behind “La La Land” and ”The Greatest Showman”). None come close to being great, but among the better songs is the peppy opener “Waving Through a Window”, the mournful “Requiem”, and the crowd-pleasing “You Will Be Found”. But most of everything else is both dull and forgettable with a couple of songs even crossing the bounds of good taste.
You don’t have to look hard to see what ”Dear Evan Hansen” wants to be. You also don’t have to look hard to see the many ways it misses its mark. Some of its choices are baffling, such as the film’s willingness to use suicide as a plot device to move Evan’s story forward. Also the questionable ways it attempts to justify Evan’s deceit. And who thought stretching the runtime to 137 minutes was a good idea?
It all might work better if it was actually leading to something meatier. Instead the movie concludes with a toothless reckoning that ends up far tidier than it should. It only adds to the film’s nagging artificiality and makes the already shaky moral center even harder to digest. That’s especially frustrating considering the heavy topics it’s trying to deal with. The intentions are good and everyone’s heart is in the right place. But one too many missteps sink the film before it even gets started good. “Dear Evan Hansen” is out now in theaters.