Kino Korner: Dear Evan Hansen
In the year of our lord 2021 Rhymes With Nerdy is a clearinghouse for Law & Order reviews, comic book retrospectives, and apparently ill-advised addiction confessionals. That’s fine. It works. But what if we switched gears and wrote about something not even in the same zip code as the remit? I’m talking, of course, about Dear Evan Hansen, the hit stage musical that is now a major motion picture that people are allowed to see with their eyeballs. My decision to review it was not one taken lightly. But I realized that I can’t not discuss it at length because I can’t stop thinking about the grandest of guignol that is Dear Evan Hansen. It’s like The Bye Bye Man if it had staying power. No matter how much I chant “don’t think it, don’t say it” to myself, inevitably all my conversations with people turn to this film and how transfixed I am on how awful it looks. I managed to secure a copy of it that fell off the back of a truck to see for myself, and let me tell you, it lives up to its toxic reputation. Speaking of toxic, after watching I felt like Paul McCrane in RoboCop after he got dumped with toxic waste. Coincidentally, DEH star Ben Platt looks like a teenager if he had been drinking Tenafly Viper Liquor behind the bleachers. I better cut it out with the references lest I abandon this project and go watch Street Trash again…
So what is Dear Evan Hansen besides a Tony Award winning musical that has been adapted years after the fact, years for critics to really stew on it and realize “hey, this is fucking bullshit”? Well, the long and short of it, and perhaps the reason I’m drawn to it, is that it’s a gene slamming of Bobcat Goldthwait’s World’s Greatest Dad and Strangers With Candy. Coincidentally those happen to both be things I enjoy a lot. The critics have seized upon comparisons between the former but not the latter, so I hope this review will make a case for Evan Hansen as basically being a male version of Amy Sedaris’ iconic Jerri Blank. The capsule synopsis for this trainwreck is that a couple who lose their son to suicide erroneously believe Evan Hansen to be their dead son’s only friend and a letter Evan wrote to himself to be dead son’s final correspondence. From there Evan is thrust into the limelight. The broad strokes apply to World’s Greatest Dad, only replace “Evan Hansen” with “Robin Williams” and the dead kid is Robin Williams’ son, not his contemporary. Needless to say, The Bobcat manages social satire a lot better than Dear Evan Hansen, showing how a suicide will often cause people to make the event about themselves to the point of rewriting their own relationship with the deceased. “But Ronnie,” you plead. “Dear Evan Hansen isn’t trying to be ‘social satire’ starring one of the finest comedic performers of a generation in a multifaceted comedic/dramatic role, it’s trying to be unrelenting nightmare fuel.”
Let’s start with the slouching, freakish elephant in the room: Ben Platt. Ben Platt played Evan Hansen on the stage, and he was carried over for the film adaptation. Here’s a fact that has nothing to do with anything: Ben’s father, Marc Platt, produced the film. I just thought you’d like to know that totally unrelated tidbit. Well, in the silent era Ben may have been age appropriate, but now he’s well past high school age and looks it. This wouldn’t be such a problem if he weren’t acting against people who still plausibly look like high schoolers, such as Kaitlyn Dever and Amandla Stenberg. (That they’re much better at acting isn’t helpful either.) Thus the comparisons to Jerri Blank, the 46 year old high school student whose rough living was a parody of public speaker/cautionary tale Florrie Fisher. Whereas Sedaris made Jerri grotesque on purpose, with Evan Hansen it seems to be unintentional. Platt tries to affect a teen demeanor by slouching (kids hate posture) and a haircut that valiantly but poorly fights against a receding hairline. He also went on a diet so as to create the emaciated look that American high schoolers have if they also did a summer trip to The Sudan. Really, if the rest of Dear Evan Hansen was of immaculate construction, Platt would still sink it because he’s such an incongruous presence. You know how chimps will kill other chimps not of their tribe? I kept waiting for the other high school students to recognize Evan was “wrong” and tear his weary, withering face off.
See, we only had to deal with an episode of this shit on Dexter. In DEH it’s 130-goddamn-7 minutes.
We’re introduced to Evan writing a letter addressed to himself (the first shot is a Word document, always a winner). In it he extols to himself to be himself, albeit more confident and approachable, claiming this year will be different from other years. Immediately there’s a problem because Ben Platt is so old looking I don’t know what the fuck year he is. Sophomore? Junior? Guy held back for the entire length of CSI: Miami’s run? He sings a jaunty little tune and takes some pill brand pills. Multiple prescriptions. Who cares “what the prescriptions are”, they’re a shorthand for THIS
SENIOR CITIZEN KID IS FUCKED UP. He’s such a social disaster an interaction with a DoorDash driver is out of the question. It turns out the letter writing is an edict by a doctor and his mother, Julianne Moore (Suburbicon), seems intent on him sticking to it. He has a cast on his arm which is a Chekhovian device. (First and last time this shit gets compared to Chekhov.)
OH COME ON–THEY NAME THE TEAM THE BOBCATS? SALT IN THE WOUND, YOU ASSHOLES
His supporting cast consists of bitchy queen “family friend” Jared (Nik Dodani, student organizer for Elizabeth Warren’s 2012 Senate campaign) and his crush Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever, Last Man Standing). Jared shits on Evan like only a movie character would (as in Evan never says “that’s really gratuitously hurtful” or punches him in the face) and Zoe doesn’t know he exists, Evan professes, though she knows his name and immediately offers him an opportunity to talk to her. Evan rewrites the letter. “Face it, would anyone notice if I just disappeared tomorrow?” What a novel observation. The only more unpopular kid than him, Connor, signs Evan’s cast (“Now we can both pretend we have friends”), steals his letter and shortly thereafter kills himself. I would do the same if I were stuck in Dear Evan Hansen. Evan spends a long time searching social media for variations on “Evan Hansen letter”—Facebook, Reddit, the works. Revenge porn is a thing. This is not a thing.
Formerly-acclaimed-now-“her-again?” actress Amy Adams (Hillbilly Elegy) and Danny Pino (Law & Order: Special Victims Unit) confront Evan with the letter, and extrapolate from its existence that he and Connor were close friends. Now this is an object lesson on what to do and what not to do in a situation. DO: Tell the truth, because the momentary embarrassment of admitting to a therapeutic exercise is nothing compared to the cruelty of giving a grieving couple a false impression. DON’T: The rest of Dear Evan Hansen. The Murphys invite him over for dinner and immediately the lie almost crumbles under its own weight because no one can find any sort of digital correspondence between the two. Amy Adams, playing her role with a Stepford smile of desperation and a glass of wine as if to say “FILL IN YOUR OWN CHARACTERIZATION BLANKS YOU STUPID FUCKS”, explains it away with talk of secret, hidden accounts. Zoe, to her credit, thinks her brother was “bad” and won’t entertain a charitable viewpoint mere days after his passing. Through a couple of context clues and a grieving family nudging him in the right direction, Evan is able to spin a tale of him and Connor going to a rundown apple orchard. What kid’s favorite place is an apple orchard? No wonder Connor hanged himself. Shot himself? The movie never specifies, which I think is a mistake. Inquiring minds want to know!
That the most elaborate the choreography gets is the song covering Evan and Jared creating fake e-mails for social profit definitely does not indicate we’re dealing with the shittiest people in the world. I kept thinking of The Producers. “We could make more money with a false friendship than a real one?”
The sassy gay helps Evan fabricate reams of digital backstory for the friendship, which he turns over to the Murphy family, as though that’s not an invasion of privacy at the least. When I die of a rage stroke ranting about the Season 29 finale of Law & Order: SVU, I hope my asshole friends don’t share all my Zoe Kazan zingers and flagellating whining from the groupchat with my parents. It’s a real ethical grey area because of course it’s all made up, but still. Evan and Zoe bond over dead and absent dads and he smuggles in his infatuation with Zoe through some “observations” from Connor. (Funny route the movie doesn’t take: Zoe misinterprets and comes under the impression Connor wanted to fuck her.) The problem with this scene is that Evan knows so much about her he’s a stalker at best and at worst we started the film about two weeks before he began his effort to make a suit out of Kaitlyn Dever. I mean, that sort of tonal discordance encapsulates the problems with this thing.
When the film doesn’t know what to do, it pivots to song, all of which are ballads that require no interesting choreography that even The Simpsons knows to do with musical numbers. You know, for a musical there’s not a whole lot of songs, to the point that I occasionally forgot what I was watching. They disrupt the momentum. I’m not a man with a long handshake, if you know what I mean ;), so I can’t judge their actual quality, but I will say you could cut them out and you would not lose plot nor aesthetical beauty. The musical interludes seem to exist so you’ll think less of World’s Greatest Dad. “Robin Williams didn’t belt out some bathetic tunes, it’s totally different”. The commercials tout the involvement of songwriters from The Greatest Showman and La La Land, which makes sense, because those two movies were also questionable rehabilitation of monsters, (P.T. Barnum and a white jazz fan, respectively). Although I am not a confirmed bachelor and as such my criterion of judging musical material is irrelevant, none of the songs are memorable. That’s what the goal is, right? The only thing I’ll remember is the cognitive dissonance of seeing Danny Pino somberly singing in his office and me thinking “man, you’re a ways off from getting half your face burned off on The Shield, aren’t you?”.
The big musical number “You Will Be Found” is really the crux of the whole disaster, though. It creates problems because it happens to be recorded and placed online, whereupon it becomes a viral sensation. I’m not lying when I say one of the uploads titles it “His Best Friend Died… You Won’t Believe What He Did Next!”. Dirty pool, movie; that’s a Buzzfeed article title, not a YouTube video title. The aforementioned problems I find with this is if Evan sang a song about how none of us are truly alone (except for those of who can’t profit off of someone’s suicide, of course) and we’re to believe the singing is a conceit/artistic license and no one is actually singing…what the fuck is on the video? Is it the song lyrics only spoken? Is it the video from The Ring? Do we risk a 40 year old man calling us up and croaking “seven days”? Good musicals don’t make you think about that shit, whereas Dear Evan Hansen’s inability to create a coherent reality left me puzzled. Anyway, like I said, it goes viral and there’s a Greek chorus of people who record videos of themselves speaking to the power of the original video. A lot of these people are black and while I don’t want to really delve into the racial politics of this movie, black people by and large have institutional quality of life problems that will not be allayed by an old man singing a jaunty tune about teenage suicide. Nor would they find kinship in some fucking asshole eligible for his AARP membership laying out the most basic of homilies against alienation. No one would, really. The content mills might pick it up, but those finding it inspiring would be met in equal number by those who found it cringe. Imagine what Weird Twitter would do to Evan Hansen. It’d be elder abuse!
That face when you’re not even getting nominated.
Alana (Amandla Stenberg, that fucking movie where she was allergic to everything but it turned out her mom was gaslighting her) creates The Connor Project to raise awareness about suicide and such. First of all, terrible name. No one will give money to anything named Connor. You hear “Connor”, you picture stupid Superman clones and fey Green Arrow sons, or at least I do. Name it The Murphy Project, the kid’s last name. That way you get some old school micks who will mistake the thing as a money laundering operation for the IRA. Second, the movie never bothers to explore the commodification of grief and trauma, so this plot element passes by without comment. No one acts as though it’s fucked up the organization was founded by the striving overachiever who’s president of all the school clubs. Jared also receives a karmic free pass for faking e-mails between Evan and Connor. I thought he’d be a plot point later on, like he’d get an attack of conscience or he’d threaten to bring down Evan and Evan would have to rub him out lest the house of cards come crashing down. Well, that’d be potentially interesting conflict whereas this production would rather luxuriate in what can only be described as grief peacocking.
See, Dear Evan Hansen would’ve made a great black comedy because it did make a good black comedy when it was World’s Greatest Dad. Moreover, the conclusions Evan draws from this ordeal are the exact sort of twisted narcissism and missing the point of an episode of Strangers With Candy, which existed to make a mockery of the very idea of learning anything from heavy handed afterschool specials and public service announcement campaigns. I can picture it now: a kid at Flatpoint kills themselves, and through some comedic hijinks the lesson Jerri learns and imparts to the audience is that someone’s suicide is really about you. The issue that turns everything here to shit lies with the film’s decision to play everything straight. Evan having to be on the board of the Connor Project should be akin to George Constanza’s involvement in The Susan Ross Foundation. There’s a streak of Costanza in Evan; I would’ve given my eye teeth for his ‘confession’ to consist of being confronted and after a long pause he’d say “was that wrong? Should I not have done that? Cause I gotta tell ya…”.
“I stole the TV. Did some more time…”
Another thing: Dear Evan Hansen suffers from, well, its focus on Evan Hansen. “The solipsistic liar” is the least interesting character in the movie. To be fair, Ben Platt being a shitty actor—a collection of tics and nothing more—contributes to this. Maybe he’s a revelation on stage, I don’t know. But in movieland he fucking stinks. Whatever his talents, they don’t lie with playing a believable alienated teenage boy. He’d be better off attached to one of those umpteenth Ted Bundy projects, although Ted only lived to 42 so Platt might have aged out of the role already. I’m not saying the writing is great or any of these people portray fully realized characters but focusing on Kaitlyn Dever’s Zoe—whose arc is reconciling the bad parts of her brother with the good parts—would’ve worked. Amy Adams and Danny Pino would’ve worked. Hell, what’s Jared’s perspective? He’s Evan’s co-conspirator and he disappears for long stretches of the runtime. Is Alana running The Connor Project out of altruism or because it adds to the college application? Take the focus off the fucking old man for a moment to create a more multifaceted approach to how a community deals with and internalizes a tragic event and you’d have something better.
He’d make for a good Joker, I’ll admit. I’m terrified already!
Things escalate when Alana starts questioning the official timeline of the friendship, so Evan offers up the titular letter, which she promptly leaks online to get more donations to The Connor Project. This causes a social media firestorm in which everyone blames Connor’s family for his suicide. It takes 100 minutes in a 137 minute picture for Evan to finally confess in a poorly realized musical number. “I’m a fucking bet?” from She’s All That moment this is not. The family decides not to publicize the fraud. I like the Murphys rationale that subjecting Evan to such heat (also known as “the repercussions of his actions”) would cause him to kill himself. Maybe it’s because people would want their donations back, huh? Evan eventually does the right thing, by which I mean puts up a cell phone video of him admitting everything. It’s the “notes app” apology, people. This all does hew to the typical viral sensation in that eventually it comes out it was all calculated by some cold blooded reptile, or in this case a jittery Boomer in Gen Z-face.
For once, Reddit has it right.
Of course, we can’t end this garbage on a down note in which everybody’s unhappy and things are unresolved. What is this, The Graduate? A thousand times no! This is inspirational, somehow, I guess! Once again a pariah, Evan does the bare minimum and finds a Facebook video Connor was tagged in and starts e-mail fellow tagged people, asking for information about Connor. I’m not sure how he got past the ”yep, that’s me asking, the huge liar”, but Dear Evan Hansen is like jazz: it’s about the logical storytelling you don’t see. He looks up in the yearbook a list of Connor’s favorite books, which include Cat’s Cradle and Ready Player One, which is like saying “oh yeah, my favorite foods are filet mignon and a bag of used diapers” and starts reading them. I thought this might be leading in the direction of Evan developing a Dark Half, but unfortunately that’s not the case. He finds a video of Connor playing the guitar for his rehab buddies—it’s a plot point that Connor refused to play in front of his family—and we get this sequence of Evan mailing off flash drives containing the video like some sort of Johnny Appleseed. The staging of this movie is so bad that several characters open the big mailer while sitting in front of their computer. They don’t know it’s a flash drive yet, what the hell. Also, who sight unseen places an anonymously sent flash drive in their computer system? Idiots, I guess, so that tracks. Better title for the movie: The Town That Never Banned Lead Paint.
Every scene of Zoe and Evan together has the same tension to it as the moments between the Monster and the little girl in Frankenstein.
The film frames this journey of discovery about the real Connor being the rehabilitation of Evan, to the point that Zoe even invites him to the famed orchard that Connor so loved, so Evan could see it at least one time. Why? Why the fuck would that matter? How does any of this make up for the fact that Evan gaslit the entire goddamn town AND the world wide web? At first I thought this was gonna be a Miller’s Crossing thing and Hansen would have to beg for his life. Not so! They don’t get back together but they do depart on friendly terms. The lesson seems to be that life is one big jumble, so if a liar concerts a scheme of malicious gaslighting but it eventually pays dividends, well, fair dues. Literally no one would’ve thought “hey I wonder if the people who literally LIVED WITH HIM at a rehab facility have anything to say about him” except the Big White Guy. Zoe’s literally just a girl, she don’t know how to “research”. Never read a page of Ready Player One in her life!
Uh, you might say Kurt would be Vonnegutted to be on the same list as Ready Player One!
Director Stephen Chbosky (age 51, so a contemporary of Ben Platt) is definitely attracted to a “type” of shitty movie, in that his previous directorial efforts The Perks of Being a Wallflower (spoiler: the perk is you get to be molested by Heavenly Creatures’ Melanie Lynskey) and Wonder can both be described as paeans to outsiders, just like Dear Evan Hansen. If you need someone to do the dirty deed of “cloying trash”, Chbosky’s your man. The difference is the outsider status on those pictures is earned, by either child molestation or being an Elephant Man like Jacob Tremblay was in Wonder. What the fuck is Evan Hansen’s excuse, besides being unconscionably elderly? A lot of people, especially in high school, feel like outsiders. Sometimes it’s due to being a racial or sexual identity minority. Sometimes it’s due to mental health issues. Sometimes it comes down to “shyness”. Hansen definitely suffers from some strain of social anxiety but mainly his problem is he’s a fucking 48 year old man pretending as a teenager. There’s nothing relatable or positive to his character, because for 2 hours of the 2 hours 17 minutes he’s a lying, opportunistic Rasputin to the Murphy family with the most half-assed restitution this side of the Pentagon going “oops that drone strike actually killed seven civilians sowwy ☹”. Anybody who sees this shit and goes “it me, I’m that” ought to be put under Arkham Asylum.
It’s for this reason the big reconciliation of sorts between Evan and Julianne Moore falls flat. She’s barely been a character, being busy at the hospital factory, whenever he needs her, and when she is there he whines that he’s a burden on her and the worst thing to ever happen to her. While I don’t know the ins and outs of fictional Julianne Moore’s life, I’m going to go ahead and say “true”. The heartstring pulling “I’m broken” “no you’re not” conversation doesn’t work if the film does nothing to dispute the notion that he is broken. Let’s face it, Citytown USA would be better off if Evan Hansen’s suicide attempt worked. (It’s at this juncture he confirms the heavily foreshadowed truth that he tried to kill himself by throwing himself out of a tree. Hence the cast.) All he’s been using that cast for is showing vulnerability while moving a couch or other piece of furniture in a store parking lot. Stop this motherfucker before he even starts that woman suit, you know? I’m not exaggerating for comic effect when I claim Evan Hansen is the most detestable fictional character I’ve encountered in quite some time. Eddie Haskell, The Ice Truck Killer, Jeff Daniels in The Newsroom don’t even compare. Evan is: cowardly, deceitful, self-centered, narcissistic… I could go on but I’d sound like an FBI profiler. He’s gonna grow up to be the guy throwing cum at Starling in Silence of the Lambs.
Asking the questions DEH is afraid to ask.
While I’m at it, let me recommend another movie in which a weird outsider brings a family closer together through unorthodox methods. Takashi Miike’s Visitor Q is much, much better piece of art than Dear Evan Hansen. Really, any usurper narrative works better, from Teorema to The Hand That Rocks The Cradle. That’s what this is, when you get down to it: Evan bumbles into a family unit with a gaping hole in it and becomes a better son to Amy Adams and Danny Pino and a better brother/lover (don’t knock it; incest is ‘in’ in America, as evidenced by our porn statistics) to Kaitlyn Dever than Connor ever was. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention there’s an element of class envy here. Evan’s mom is always at working as a nurse, whereas the Murphys are rich enough that Amy Adams can take up hobbies like “Buddhism” and Danny Pino works at what can only be called the business factory. In fact, they even offer to pay for Evan’s college education, because it’s not like Connor is gonna use the money. Like most everything in this farce of a film, though, this class element is underdeveloped and may as well have been excised. Better to reintegrate those deleted scenes of Evan setting fires, wetting his bed and experimenting on animals in his shed in the woods.
Evan Hansen speaking truth to power.
I hope and expect a strong rebuke of this pandering nonsense in the only truly democratic organ in the nation: the box office. Despite already being the owner of an Emmy, Grammy and a Tony, the future does not look bright for Ben Platt. I daresay Dear Evan Hansen could be a career killing project and performance. It’s that bad. He’ll have a hell of a time achieving the EGOT, that’s for sure. I looked him up and his only upcoming film project is Merrily We Roll Along, a Richard Linklater directed adaptation of play of same name that will be, akin to Boyhood, filmed over the course of 20 years in an effort to portray realistic aging. Man, what is Dick Link thinking. This is his most curious decision since “I oughta really put a camera in front of this Alex Jones character”. If Ben Platt already looks old for his age, what the hell will he be in 20 years, you may wonder. Well, we at Rhymes With Nerdy actually have access to a time machine and can show you what Ben Platt will look like in 2040. Here it goes.
Well, I hope you enjoyed my dissection of further proof that what works on Broadway doesn’t translate to Hollyweird, as if Cats wasn’t enough of a shot across the bow. It says a lot that a picture that has James Corden as a man-cat singing about bullshit raises my ire less than this cacophony of dark triad warning signs. The only way Universal will be able to salvage the hours that went into this is if they pull it off the market, change the title to Evan Hansen: Portrait of a Serial Killer and have it compete against Halloween Kills in October.