Ben Platt’s Performance Will be Found Forever Wrong
DIRECTED BY STEPHEN CHBOSKY/2021
No one will ever mistake Ben Platt for John Wayne. But as actors, they do have at least one thing in common: they are both leading men who get into trouble when they veer beyond their own strengths. For John Wayne, it meant always playing a rugged, self-assured man with a code. For musical theater sensation Platt, it means staying between the hot lights and floorboards of the Great White Way. Seriously Mr. Platt- your dear rabid fan base may love you- but the movie camera assuredly does not.
Platt, reprising his star-making title role of teenager Evan Hansen from the hit 2015 stage musical of the same title, is nothing short of a quivering, twitchy, self-conscious disaster. He is not only glaringly too old to be playing a high school student (an understandable public controversy since the public first laid eyes in the film’s trailer), but he also can’t seem to rein in his established practice of acting to the back row. When he’s not singing, he’s a black hole on screen, sucking away the commendable efforts of everyone else around him with his over-gesturing- like some kind of unstable extroverted introvert. When he is singing one of his many songs, he looks not only constipated, but totally freaked about being constipated.
In short, Platt’s transition to this film adaptation of “Dear Evan Hansen” will be forever notable for being one of the all-time worst casting mishaps in the entire history of cinema. The fit is that glaringly bad. There’s ample proof that Platt is a tremendous singer and stage performer. But his decision to take his signature role before the camera, particularly surrounded by veteran film actors who are all as good as they can be in their parts (most notably Amy Adams and Julianne Moore, both playing moms), is massively messy. His close-ups communicate unhinged delusion more-so than inner monologue. It’s as though the entire film is secretly about a gangly grown man who thinks he’s still in high school, and no one is sure how to tell him the truth.
Dear Evan Hansen functions as a teen melodrama with occasional decent songs sung. (There seems to be too few songs to think of it first and foremost as a musical, even though that’s what it is). Which is actually ideal for a movie about teenagers, as teenagers tend to operate in a fixed state of exaggerated reaction and response anyhow. Except, the heightened tenor of everything only seems to apply to Platt’s Hansen. The rest of the cast and director Stephen Chbosky (writer and director of the far superior troubled teen drama The Perks of Being a Wallflower) seems to have decided to keep everything else rather grounded. A kinda dull decision, though the leading man must’ve never gotten the memo.
Per the source material by Benj Pasek, Justin Paul, and Steven Levenson (who also wrote the screenplay), Dear Evan Hansen is about a lonely teenage boy with crippling social anxiety. It’s clearer and clearer as the movie goes on that Evan is just one example in a youth culture that is widely medicated to the point of saturation. (See his exchange with classmate Alana, played the wonderful Amandla Stenberg- the film’s best scene). Just like real life, such treatment remains an untalked-about aspect of daily life. In this sense, Dear Evan Hansen is onto something very important: all-too-common mental issues such as depression and anxiety need desperately to be de-stigmatized. But this mission is crouched in a stale recycled sit-com-level plot in which Evan gets caught up in a snowballing lie of his own telling. Like the movie itself, Evan’s heart is in the right place. But watching both navigate it is often painful… and weird.
It needs to said that Platt’s ghoulish presence is not the only thing very off about Dear Evan Hansen. Sometimes, it’s very world- a hermetically sealed suburban everytown where even poor people like Evan and his overworked single mother (Julianne Moore) live in large, tidy, very well-furnished homes- gives off a strong uncanny alternate-Earth/pod-people vibe. Just look at an early scene in which Evan finds himself as a dinner guest in the palatial home of the girl of his dreams, Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever). It is the dinner scene from Mars, where no one eats their cloned food, and glaring truths are danced around with more finesse than any of the hoofing in the film’s actual musical numbers. (Is such disjointedness a result of film production in the COVID-19 era?) The pretense is a delicate misconception which Evan finds himself unable to confront.
Through a convoluted misunderstanding in having found a note that Evan actually wrote to himself, Zoe’s parents believe that their terminally angry outcast teenage son Connor (Colton Ryan) had a good friend after all. They believe that it was Connor who typed the “Dear Evan Hansen…” letter in question. (Never mind why… If he was such a close friend, would he feel the need to type his first and last name? Or, for that matter, print the letter on paper? Seriously, why did Evan hit “print” on this in the first place??) All of this is of heavy importance, since recently, we learn, Connor took his own life.
But, how recently…? That is a good question. Yet another distracting “waitaminute…!” moment comes when Evan is summoned to the principal’s office following an altercation with Connor the previous afternoon in the school library. At least, it very much seems like it happened on the previous afternoon…. The scene plays out like this: Connor, in a rare moment of being personable, offers to sign Evan’s blank cast. (As the movie keeps reminding us, Evan broke his arm falling out of a stupid tree). He does, and then finds the titular letter that Evan just typed to himself and printed. Conner gets agitated and scary-violent when he sees his sister’s name mentioned, knocks Evan down, and leaves- letter in hand.
Cut to what seems like the next morning. Evan is telling his actual gay best friend (Nik Dodani) about the incident in the library when, as mentioned, he’s summoned. In the principal’s office, he meets Connor’s parents, who now have the letter. “Connor wanted you to have this…”. Hoo-boy. It’s here where we learn that Conner has died by suicide. A terrible tragedy, though it’s very weirdly rendered insofar as the mom and dad don’t seem all that devastated. If their son had just died, why would they make a point of immediately tracking down this stranger in a letter they found on his person? The mom (Amy Adams) is waaay too caught up in her expansive assumptions. The dad (Danny Pino) is a cold, unemotive somnambulist, right out of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
Evan becomes the unwitting receptacle of their false hopes that Connor was, in fact, capable of having a healthy relationship. Evan feels badly for them to the point of fabricating a story that he and Connor were climbing that stupid tree together when Evan fell. Before long, everyone thinks Evan and Connor were best buds. (Though oddly- even though Ben Platt radiates a certain queerness in his depiction of this straight character- no one blatantly assumes that the two were lovers). The idea of Connor as a tragic victim takes on a life of its own. A foundation is established, and crowdfunding commences to save an orchard that Conner in reality never gave a rip about. How long will Evan let this falsehood persist before he inevitably fesses up? That’s the plot of Dear Evan Hansen.
One thing that works smotheringly well is the school’s decor. True to life, the walls are a barrage of colorful affirmations, cloying positivity, anti-bully lip service, and encouraged inclusiveness. But even still, students routinely sit alone in this atmosphere, wounded on levels they don’t comprehend and no one else bothers to try. It’s enough to cause one to admonish such condescendingly empty gestures. (Perhaps real schools could consider actual artwork instead of such decorative tripe?) Unfortunately, the film’s own inspirational angle demonstrates the same failed intentions.
Yet, as poignant as the school signage set decoration is, the Hansen house is another matter. Though their dialogue tells us that this single-family unit is of the low-income variety, the place is awfully big. And more aptly, awfully tidy. There’s mahogany wood trim all through it, for crying out loud. Evan’s bedroom is downright cavernous, with a stuffed old-man recliner and an expensive bookcase, neither of which are suffering for space. On the wall, we see a framed landscape suitable for any waiting room, as well as a perfectly hung quadrant of generic prints in matching frames. No high school student would be caught dead with any of this, no matter the era. (To be fair, an Act III song by Moore explains their own living situation, although it comes too little too late for audience members who’ve spent the entire movie distracted by such things).
One reason why “Dear Evan Hansen” may’ve become the phenomenon that it did is because it manages to organically integrate a good number contemporary aspects. Crowdfunding and social media are key in ways that one may not associate with Old Broadway. But even in this, there’s a weariness. The story hits a certain point where (ugh) Evan gives a speech and then becomes an online in viral phenomenon. This gives way to a gawdawful “inspiring” musical montage called “You Will Be Found”. Hyper-earnest moments like this, a mere one inch away from the Mean Girls threshold of being biting satire, makes one wonder what Tina Fey could do with this whole premise. One thing’s for sure, it would be a good 85% less precious.
It’s fair to criticize the whole of Dear Evan Hansen for failing to deal well with the title character’s lie. Should it be enough that he spends the whole movie feeling badly about it? As it stands, the film’s two primary tracks of inspiration and deceit never co-mingle or resolve in a resonant or satisfying way. It’s simply not a good movie, at all.
You know what’s a good movie? 1948’s Fort Apache. It’s a U.S. Cavalry Western by John Ford in which Henry Fonda’s deplorable lieutenant colonel, out of utter hubris, leads his men into a completely preventable massacre that John Wayne repeatedly warns against. In the end, however, Wayne affirms the lie that Fonda is a fallen hero. Why? For the greater good of the emerging United States. It’s an altogether disturbing resolution to a film wrought with black and white moral struggle. Although Wayne lies in the end, Ford has told the truth. Dear Evan Hansen ultimately avoids such nagging ambiguity… and to what end?? Instead, we have a frustrating plot that is altogether earnest in its messaging, but at times is seemingly trying to downplay its own plot of Evan’s cascading lie. Even the show’s most ardent fans will likely agree that this strangely surreal movie is epically fractured. As is goes, Dear Evan Hansen falls hard.