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Dear Evan Hansen Review: Exit Through The Grift Shop

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Dear Evan Hansen Review: Exit Through The Grift Shop

From the moment its trailer debuted, “Dear Evan Hansen” has been vilified and ridiculed in equal measure. If it’s not cruel jokes about how the film’s lead Ben Platt, 27 years of age, is playing someone ten years his junior while looking 30 years his senior, then it’s broad asides about the inherent comedy of a film with such serious undertones being a twee-sounding musical. But why is the reception so harsh?

Throughout any given year, certain movies come along that feel predestined to be memetic punching bags for critics’ personal frustrations. Professional film critics watch significantly more movies annually than the average person, and as such, are subjected to a wider array of product. So after repeat weeks of having to watch and unpack middling, forgettable affairs, when something truly special comes along, it becomes easy to get swept up in the effusive praise heaped by critical consensus, a collective sigh of relief. But when something is so obviously going to fall short in quality, then the knives come out, because there’s nothing more freeing than to pile on a movie most people agree is garbage.

But “Dear Evan Hansen” isn’t garbage. It’s not even, if we’re being objective, that bad a movie. It is just so profoundly ill-conceived, so grotesque in the chasm between its intent and its execution, as to be the most baffling thing a major studio has released in recent memory. 

Based on the hit Broadway musical of the same name, “Dear Evan Hansen” is, simply put, the tale of a depressed and anxiety-ridden high school senior (Ben Platt) who exploits the suicide of a classmate he barely ever interacted with for personal gain. There are more charitable ways to frame the narrative, to be sure, but if that log line was written on an index card and slid across the table of a studio executive, one would hope a red pen wouldn’t add “maybe they sing and dance?” to that idea. This is a story only a sociopath would think should be presented as some kind of wholesome musical.

It is a confounding film to have to untangle, but not one without merit. Director Stephen Chbosky clearly set out to do a beloved stage show justice and to make a resonant statement about mental health and grief. Unfortunately, the resulting film is an irritating mess.

The Tainted Mr. Ripley

Spoilers ahead for “Dear Evan Hansen.”

Let’s get the obvious stuff out of the way. Ben Platt shouldn’t have been cast to play Evan Hansen, the jittery, awkward, soft-spoken involuntary loner at the film’s core.  The actor, son of the film’s producer Marc Platt, originated the role in its stage iteration six years ago, when he was much closer to the protagonist’s actual age. The weight loss and use of make-up designed to mask the fact he’s grown and aged since then serve to only make him look like a gaunt, middle-aged insurance salesman going undercover at a high school a la “Never Been Kissed.” 

It’s jarring — initially, anyway. Yes, Platt looks like Steve Buscemi with the skateboard in that one “30 Rock” episode. But his performance feels lived in and effortless, the way someone who has spent untold nights performing a part for live audiences often does. When he belts the show’s songs, from “La La Land” and “The Greatest Showman” composers Pasek and Paul, it’s not hard to understand why everyone involved felt he couldn’t be recast. Because as the film goes on, the anachronistic nature of his looks pales in comparison to, well, everything else about the movie.

Evan is entering his senior year of school with no friends, save for “family friend” Jared (a hilarious Nik Dodani), a mother who loves him but works all the time so she’s barely around Heidi (Julianne Moore), and a debilitating crush on a girl he doesn’t even know, Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever). Evan broke his arm over the summer and the closest thing he has to a way to make friends is his mother’s suggestion that he ask people to sign his cast. His therapist suggests he begin writing himself letters, as an exercise to help quell his crippling anxiety. After a particularly rough day, he prints out one of these letters, one that includes explicit yearning over Zoe. Through a brief comedy of errors, it falls into the hands of Zoe’s troubled brother Connor (Colton Ryan), who thinks it’s an elaborate prank designed to get a rise out of the notoriously hotheaded outcast.

It’s a particularly sad misunderstanding, given that right before it, Connor signs Evan’s cast as a way to acknowledge they’re both friendless, alone and suffering from their respective mental health issues in silence. But it gets even worse when Connor goes home and commits suicide, leaving his parents Cynthia (Amy Adams) and Larry (Danny Pino) to think the folded-up letter Evan wrote to himself was in fact Connor’s dying words. Too nervous to tell them the truth, Evan spins a reassuring yarn to Connor’s family about how he and Connor were secret friends, and tells everyone within earshot who has lingering questions about this deceased young man whatever they want to hear, ingratiating himself into their lives in the process.

Conveniently, this gives Evan the present, doting and wealthy nuclear family he’s never had since his father abandoned him as a child, as well as notoriety at school after his tearful memorial to Connor goes viral online. It also, most grossly, leads to he and Zoe embarking on a sweet and tender romance. Yes, this is really a sincere musical about a guy using a stranger’s suicide to dirty mack on that same stranger’s sister and inspire that stranger’s affluent parents to want to pay his way through college. That is the plot summary of a real movie that is being marketed as a touching, heartfelt story to help young people cope with depression.

Certified Liar Boy

You know that phenomenon where someone on YouTube recuts a famous movie trailer with different editing choices and new music and it completely changes the intended genre of the piece? Execution in a movie is everything. Colin Trevorow’s unique schlocksterpiece “The Book of Henry” is only an all-time laughed-out-the-building misfire because it looks and feels like “Pay It Forward,” like it was meant to run at 6:35pm on TBS whenever a Braves game finishes. But if the film was visually quirkier, like a Wes Anderson film, audiences might have engaged with it on a very different level.

Similarly, if “Dear Evan Hansen” was a dark comedy, something scathing and self-effacing like “Heathers” or even “Mean Girls,” it could be a movie of the year contender. Some of its best moments are the ones that don’t shy from the baked-in absurdity of its premise. There’s a musical number titled “Sincerely Me” where Evan and Jared write fake emails between Evan and Connor, with Connor onscreen dancing and acting out the fake correspondence, looking decidedly like Justin Timberlake in “Southland Tales.” That sequence strikes a balance the rest of the film could have done well to further explore.

Instead, the film’s first half genuinely wants the viewer to feel bad for Evan for being in this awkward predicament without ever really exploring how disgusting what he’s doing really is. The film’s back half builds uncomfortable suspense about how the chips will fall when this Jenga tower of deception finally topples, but the release valve is busted. Perhaps the source material wrestles with Evan’s complex and nuanced arc more delicately, but its adaptation strings audiences along for entirely too long before letting its protagonist off with a slap on the wrist. 

This isn’t just petty moralizing, either. Had this been an outright character portrait about a deeply flawed individual, or even a film that had no difficulty painting Evan out as a Tom Ripley-esque villain, it would be more fascinating and engrossing. It would also free plenty of emotional energy from the viewer tied up in conducting the mental gymnastics necessary to make Evan even halfway relatable to allow them to connect with the film’s other observations about the travails of latchkey kids fighting their demons all on their own. 

Instead, “Dear Evan Hansen” is an uncomfortable, intermittently touching movie that feels less like a complete story and more like an elaborate prank on the masses. It’s a movie that could have meant a lot to a great deal of people — reduced, rightly, to fodder for memes and mean-spirited online takedowns. Dear “Dear Evan Hansen,” at least you’re finally over.

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