From its inadequate opening to its indulgent end, “Dear Evan Hansen” is a parody of teen angst, a film so unmoored from meaning that it hurls itself at the viewer like spaghetti to a wall, just seeing what might stick. Ultimately, what lingers is the stench of a deeply flawed premise, message, and messenger, overpowering what few worthwhile ideas and performances there are in this moody morass.
The original stage musical “Dear Evan Hansen” won multiple Tony Awards so long ago that Kevin Spacey was the ceremony’s host. One of those trophies went to Ben Platt for playing the titular teen. Platt reprises the role for the big screen, although with his hoodies, curly locks, and exaggerated eccentricities, the now-27-year-old Platt looks more like he’s playing Mark Zuckerberg in a musical adaptation of “The Social Network.”
The adult Platt opens the film as Evan, wandering a high school’s crowded hallways and crooning about how lonely he is. In the very next scene, Evan is shooting the breeze with his best friend Jared at a school assembly, gabbing about gossip and Evan being gaga for band geek Zoe Murphy (Kaitlyn Dever). The only person who signs Evan’s arm cast is troubled teen Connor (Colton Ryan), who only does so because he feels bad for yelling at Evan earlier. Evans’s therapist has suggested that Evan write himself letters about what happened throughout the day. For some reason, Evan prints out the letter at school, where Connor, also Zoe’s brother, finds it and reads that Evan is creeping his sister before bolting in a huff.
Unfortunately, that letter is in Connor’s pocket later when he commits suicide. Seeing the letter was ostensibly written to Evan, Connor’s parents — mom Cynthia (Amy Adams) and stepdad Larry (Danny Pino) — presume that their dead son and Evan were BFFs. That is significant because apparently Connor didn’t like anyone, and no one much liked him, either. When Cynthia and Larry see Connor’s name written on Evan’s cast, their supposed friendship is sealed. Not wanting to pop his parents’ balloon, Evan goes from not correcting their erroneous assumptions about a friendship with Connor to actively concocting an elaborate backstory to support it, including fake e-mails the two exchanged and trips they sometimes took to an apple orchard the family used to visit.
As the lies snowball, and Evan does nothing to slow them down, he parlays frequent invites to the Murphy manse to get closer to Zoe, eventually leading to a burgeoning romance between them. Meanwhile, Connor’s death becomes a social cause spearheaded by school do-everything Alana Beck (Amandla Sternberg), who swaps mood-altering prescription lists with Evan. When Evan’s lie-filled eulogy of Connor to the student body goes viral, a fundraiser to save the actual apple orchard — and Evan’s celebrity — skyrockets.
The abhorrence of Evan’s deception is graven and self-apparent, and to the film’s credit it doesn’t pretend otherwise, besides a risible climatic stab at semi-redemption. Any lingering notion that Evan’s web of lies was a consequence of good intentions or something that became bigger than he ever anticipated is belied by the fact that a few early words of explanation could have prevented all that followed.
No, the film’s fault lies in the stars, and its focus. Other than Evan’s mom Heidi (played by Julianne Moore, whose solid performance seems like it was meant for another movie), there isn’t a likable character in the bunch. Evan and Zoe have zero chemistry together, and Connor’s parents are daft and detached. Jared is a jerk, flashbacks portray a cantankerous Connor, and even the high-minded Alana flashes an inner Tracy Glick when she decides to salvage her charity bona fides by shotgunning Evan’s letter, shared with her in confidence, onto the Internet. The songs in this musical are treacly and unaffecting, and the genre rules here are ill-defined — at times the musical interludes are fantasy sequences, while other scenes, like Evan’s school eulogy, imply that the singing might be literal.
There is an interesting movie to be made about the peer pressure that might propel Evan’s duplicity, or the social media ethos that would blindly and/or self-righteously promote a movement without any true evaluation of its origins and then instantly devour anyone they deem unworthy of that movement, even the parents of the person they’re supposedly commemorating. Alas, any of those passing subplots are lost amid the Evan Hansen Show, the decidedly irksome story of how a young man’s life and death, and its impact on his family and community, play second fiddle to a needy, nattering nebbish who parlays the dead boy’s memory for some free food, a girl’s attention, and perhaps even free money for college. For unwitting audiences, “Dear Evan Hansen” reads more like a ransom note.
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