DEAR EVAN HANSEN
While it's intermittently moving and generally well-acted, the film version of Broadway hit Dear Evan Hansen, as you may have heard, has a number of problems: an unconvincing, even preposterous premise; blithe depictions of teen depression and mental instability; a 27-year-old lead cast as a high-school student. We'll get to those shortly. But the movie's biggest issue, it seems to me, lies in a sensation that you might only recognize if you've seen a lot of stage musicals, or least a lot of sub-par ones.
Everyone knows the musical convention that finds characters reciting dialogue and then, after hearing or saying the appropriate cue lines, launching into numbers that essentially continue the conversations, albeit with melodies, refrains, and rhymes. But when the timing is off, you'll hear a cue line and the song's accompaniment will begin, and then, for a few measures of music, the actors will have nothing to do but stand there, or maybe pace there, until there's finally some actual singing. These instrumental pauses only last a few seconds, but in the moment, they feel eternal, and even if you generally enjoy musicals, the awkwardness of it all – a show's whole world freezing for the sake of an intro – is enough to make you slump in your seat and sigh. That's what this Dear Evan Hansen too often feels like: a long, uncomfortable pause you're forced to endure while you, and they, wait for someone to sing. And the very last thing this particular musical needs is dead air, because the more you think about its premise – or its blitheness, or its lead – the more troublesome the experience gets.
Steven Levenson, who wrote the script, also scored a Tony for the stage version's book, and it's possible that he was awarded simply for the feat of cramming an entire slapstick comedy's worth of plot into his musical drama's first 20 minutes. To nutshell the setup prior to the Big Lie, Evan Hansen (Ben Platt) is a twitchy, heavily medicated teen with an unspecified social-anxiety disorder, an estranged and unseen father, and a loving yet frequently absent mom (Julianne Moore). His therapist has instructed Evan to write himself letters of encouragement to calm his nerves, one of which winds up in the hands of fellow high-schooler Connor Murphy (Colton Ryan), a brutish, bullying outcast to counter Evan's sensitive one. A few days after filching Evan's letter, Connor commits suicide, and the boy's parents (Amy Adams and Danny Pino) reveal that Evan's letter was in Connor's pocket when he died. Given that the letter begins with “Dear Evan Hansen” and ends with “Sincerely, Me,” Connor's folks assume that the correspondence was their son's letter to Evan, and that the boys were friends. Not wanting to tell them or Connor's sister Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever) the truth for fear of devastating them further – and for fear of looking like an insane person who writes himself letters – Evan says yes, he and Connor were friends. Best friends. The Big Lie is consequently born, and things get more outrageously complicated from there.
Gosh, where to start with all this? Or rather, where to start with everything I've left out? Details such as Evan's arm being in a cast as the result of his purported fall from a tree – a cast that Connor cruelly signs in big block letters not long after shoving Evan into a locker, and that helps convince Connor's parents that the boys were pals. Or Evan composing that fated letter on a computer, signing it “Me,” and then accidentally printing it out for Connor to steal, conveniently giving the dead boy's family no reason – no handwriting sample – to think Connor didn't write it. Or Evan harboring a years-long crush on Zoe, whom he mentions in the letter, and who consequently believes that her brother cared about her more than she ever knew. Or every student in the high school (beyond Evan and Zoe) finding out about Connor's death at the exact same time on their phones, suggesting that the kid's parents sent out an Instagram message about the tragedy and the entire student body was on their feed even though no one remotely liked their son.
These are the sorts of convoluted storyline contrivances that only work, as in slapstick comedies, if you're given no time to actively consider them. But as directed by the usually reliable Stephen Chbosky, whose The Perks of Being a Wallflower and Wonder are far more effective and believable tearjerkers, the pacing of Dear Evan Hansen is logy to the point of catatonia; it's like we've all been given Ativan. When characters aren't singing (and sometimes even when they are), the whole movie is furtive glances and smiling through tears and Evan continually threatening to do the right thing and then not doing it, and your impatience leads to you asking more questions of the film than you should have to.
Why does “family friend” Jared (Nik Dodandi) agree to be complicit in Evan's ruse, even going so far as to create phony e-mail correspondence between Evan and Connor, when he obviously doesn't much like the guy? Why does Jared keep the lie going even after it's reached epically damaging proportions? Why does no one ask why there isn't even one photo of Evan and Connor together? Although the increasingly Byzantine (if silly) plotting eventually has some insightful things to say about social-media inbreeding and the perils of “liking” people rather than genuinely liking them, I just didn't buy what Chbosky and Levensen were selling. It turns out the least ridiculous thing about the film is that its denizens occasionally burst into song.
Given that the movie doesn't at all explore the “why” behind Connor's self-destructive act – Zoe's few recollections of her brother make him sound less troubled than deeply scary – and that the roots of Evan's own mental-health issues are barely addressed, if not shrugged off completely, it's easy to see why many viewers and reviewers are angry with this Dear Evan Hansen. What's strange, however, is that their rage seems more focused on the presence of Platt, who originated the role and won a 2017 Tony for it. Just to be up-front about it: Yes, Platt is far too old for the part now, and yes, the casting choice is a distracting one, though that's less the fault of the still-boyish-enough performer – or those who put him in the film – than the heavy foundation employed to make his features creepily smooth, like he's an Evan Hansen waxwork figure at Madame Tussauds. (Few would likely be bitching about the age disparity if the makeup was better and Chbosky's camera didn't stay so punishingly close to Platt's face.) But for all of his heavy emotionalism and stage tics that look overly mannered in the more inherently realistic medium of movies, I still don't think I'd have traded Platt for anyone, because good God – that voice.
A staggeringly strong tenor who can flip to a lilting falsetto in a heartbeat, Platt certainly still has the chops for his vocally demanding tunes by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. But better yet, hundreds of Evan Hansen performances have made Platt uncommonly adept at finding the interpretive meaning in his lyrics. While the songs themselves are mostly touching, I sometimes got teary-eyed just by the way Platt subtly shifted vocal emphasis or swallowed a word you presumed he would accent, and it was smart of Chbosky to have most of Evan's songs delivered live; Platt really does make singing in the film's universe sound like a natural extension of conversation. While they're all impressive vocalists in their own rights, Adams, Dever, Ryan, Pino, and Amandla Stenberg (as a well-meaning activist student who makes Evan's already messy situation so much worse) don't quite make the same musical connections with us, solid though their portrayals are. One other actor does, however: Julianne Moore.
Like most of Platt's numbers, Moore's only solo – the 11 o'clock heartbreaker “So Big/So Small” – is performed live, and even if you're not moved by Evan or his songs, it's impossible to imagine who won't be affected by his mom's subtle showcase. Detailing the day her husband left the family, and Evan's subsequent fear that his mom would leave too, Moore is astonishing here, not just because of her beautiful singing voice (who knew?!), but because, like Platt, she understands precisely where the song's emotional beats lie and how to share them in ways that feel spontaneous and forthright and true. This Dear Evan Hansen is largely a disappointment, and routinely an annoying one. But for those three minutes with Julianne Moore, at least, the film does exactly what it's supposed to: It forces you to do stomach crunches to keep from audibly weeping.
THE EYES OF TAMMY FAYE
If you were a TV viewer in the 1980s, it sometimes felt impossible, due to their innumerable PTL Club spots and ever-escalating series of evening-news scandals, to get away from televangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. And if you considered the Bakkers fools and charlatans the way many of us believed them to be, the prospect of watching the 2000 documentary The Eyes of Tammy Faye – a sincere yet unavoidably kitschy blend of character explanation and rehabilitation (with narration by RuPaul!) – didn't feel like an invitation so much as a dare. You want me to like Tammy Faye now?! Good luck with that. Yet through their incisive and remarkably bighearted doc, to say nothing of their subject's disarming geniality and openness, directors Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato did make me like the woman. Moreover, they made me understand her, at least in part – something I wouldn't have thought possible back when I only wanted to endure the devout Christian with the über-extreme makeup when she was being imitated by Jan Hooks on Saturday Night Live.
While the movie itself is excellent, it would probably require a therapist to explain why I've now seen Bailey's and Barbato's achievement – and this is a low-ball estimate – more than two dozen times over the past 20-plus years. (Does it help my case to say that it's only 78 minutes long?) So even though I was jazzed by its trailer and thought the casting of its leads was inspired, I remained a little leery of director Michael Showalter's new bio-pic take on The Eyes of Tammy Faye, as the narrative-film version, with its exact same title, didn't appear to offer much that hadn't been previously covered in the doc. Having now seen Showalter's outing, it really doesn't. Despite the inevitable fleshing out of biographical material only verbalized previously, and despite a number of personal tidbits from Tammy Faye's life now left out entirely (there's no reference to her eventual marriage to the Bakkers' contractor Roe Messner, nor the man's federal-prison sentence on charges of bankruptcy fraud), there's very little here you won't find in the original Eyes of Tammy Faye … with the exception, of course, of the performances. But that proves to be more than enough to make Showalter's endeavor worthwhile. The 2000 Eyes of Tammy Faye is marvelous. Unlike this one, though, it didn't make me cry.
It didn't make me laugh quite so hard, either, and in Showalter's and screenwriter Abe Sylvia's early scenes – at least if you have quick vocal and visual recollection of the Bakkers – you may find yourself hard-pressed not to giggle. Following a prelude that establishes young Tammy's religious fervor and oppressive upbringing (particularly at the hands of a mother played by a dry-as-dirt Cherry Jones), we're introduced to bible-college students Jim (Andrew Garfield) and Tammy (Jessica Chastain), who are granted one of the cutest Meet Cutes in modern movies. From the start, these two are clearly nuts about each other, and the actors are already so firmly in character – Garfield with his aw-shucks gentility, Chastain with her chirpy enthusiasm – that their first picnic date feels like a true merging of souls, both of them finally finding the partners-in-faith acceptance, the attention, they so desperately crave
From there, it's a bunch of speedy bio-pic leaps from marriage to traveling-preacher success to national fame through the pull of televangelist Pat Robertson (Gabriel Olds), and all the while, Garfield and Chastain delight us with reenactments and imaginings that seem nearly channeled from the 2000 doc. Neither actor necessarily resembles the person they're playing, but they're nonetheless a ton of fun; Chastain, with her augmented puffy cheeks, displays the proper Midwestern spunk and does an admirable job replicating Tammy Faye's singing voice, and Garfield is uncanny in his ability to mimic Jim's elongated “l”s when grinning boyishly and telling us that “God llllloves you! He reallllllly does!”
But those in the know about Bakker history will no doubt remember what comes next: financial impropriety, affairs (or near-affairs), testaments to Jim's closeted homosexuality, drug addiction, abandonment through the fierce vengeance of Jerry Falwell (Vincent D'Onofrio), ultimate ruin. And as Showalter's Eyes of Tammy Faye delves into its much darker terrain, what started as a chipper, affectionate, yet mildly mocking bio-pic becomes close to harrowing; we've come to like and understand these people so much, in all their vainglorious idiocy, that even their justifiable punishments feel unfairly cruel.
To be clear, neither of the Bakkers' actions are brushed off or excused in the film. Yet because we've gotten to know Jim through Garfield's nuanced portrayal, you can't help but hurt when this weak man begins caving to the desires – for money, for fame, possibly for men – that we've been aware of from the start and that Jim himself is only beginning to realize. And after Tammy surmises, correctly, that the evangelical movement is showing increasing intolerance toward homosexuals, you can't help but bawl right along with her when she invites a pastor (Randy Pieters) diagnosed with AIDS onto her show, and sobs at how uniformly anti-Christian Christians can sometimes be. It was easy to accuse the real Tammy Faye Bakker of weeping crocodile tears, but Chastain, digging deeply into the heart of a truly devout woman, suggests that her sadness is genuine – that she legitimately can't fathom a world in which what should be love is supplanted by hate. (For my money, the eternally great Chastain has never been better than she is in this scene, and her entire portrayal is so brazenly fearless – and so frequently funny – that it's like we're being introduced to the performer for the very first time.)
The 2000 Eyes of Tammy Faye had its individualized segments introduced, endearingly, by falsetto-voiced sock puppets, and it would have been nice if Showalter demonstrated similar cheekiness in his film overall. Barring a brief flash of Cherry Jones in the front seat of a car and an incredibly smart finale that toggles between an actual Tammy Faye singing engagement and the more lavish one going on in her head, the director's presentation is too much on the bland and formulaic side. (That's a bit of a disappointment considering Showalter's directorial credits include the iconic lunatic comedy Wet Hot American Summer.) But even when it's merely going-through-the-motions bio-pic fare, the new The Eyes of Tammy Faye is consistently entertaining and, thanks to its leads, almost unconscionably moving. I'll probably wind up watching this one 20-plus times, too.