Dear Evan Hansen review: Easy to mock, but not completely terrible

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Photo credit: Universal
Photo credit: Universal

Dear Evan Hansen finally arrives in UK cinemas this Friday (October 22) after receiving a not particularly warm reception in the US.

The movie adaptation of the award-winning musical was savaged in the reviews with a 30% rating on Rotten Tomatoes currently. Two overriding themes in the criticism were the miscasting of Ben Platt as a socially anxious teenager, as well as a questionable plot which, despite a common misconception, isn't about a gay romance.

Before the movie was even released, Platt hit out at critics of his casting and, in a separate interview, claimed it wouldn't have gotten made without his involvement. Shortly after its US release, writer Steven Levenson called such criticism of Platt 'cruel' and said that "people that want to hate [the movie] are going to hate it".

With the cast and crew on the defensive from the off, Dear Evan Hansen was fighting a losing battle even before the bad reviews. But were people judging the movie based on what they think it's going to be, rather than what is actually is?

Or is it actually as bad as they say it is?

Photo credit: Universal
Photo credit: Universal

The only place to start is with the casting of Platt, reprising the role that he originated on stage and won a Tony Award for. He was 27 years old when he filmed the movie, but it's not a deal breaker, since we're used to high schoolers being played by older actors.

Platt might be older than the other actors who play Evan's classmates in the movie, although it isn't to the extent that it looks odd. For instance, Kaitlyn Dever – who plays Evan's love interest Zoe Murphy – was 23 years old when production took place.

What makes it odd at times is certain decisions such as Platt's different hairstyle or hunched walking style to showcase Evan's anxiety. It only serves to highlight that he is actually an older person playing a teenager, exaggerating aspects that make it feel like a sketch rather than a musical that deals with serious issues.

There's no doubt though that Platt has the vocal talent to carry off the role and it is hard to imagine somebody delivering 'You Will Be Found' better than he does. It unwittingly creates another issue though down to the way that these songs are delivered as the movie doesn't make the most of its grander stage.

Photo credit: Universal
Photo credit: Universal

Typically when a musical makes the leap to screen, it allows the filmmakers to go bigger with the musical numbers. However, perhaps because of the limitations of shooting during the pandemic, Dear Evan Hansen's songs are largely delivered like monologues with the focus solely on Platt.

On stage, this wouldn't be an issue as most of the audience would be further away from the stage. On screen though, you see every sinew strained by Platt in close-up detail which often has the unfortunate effect of showcasing his true age, highlighting the attempts to make him look younger rather hiding them.

It's why a shot of Platt during emotional ballad 'Words Fail' did the rounds as a meme on Twitter – and not in a good way. In the movie, it does stand out a bit due to the intense focus on Platt, but it doesn't take you out of the scene. As an unfortunate single-second grab though, it'll live in infamy.

The same could be said of the reaction to the movie's plot which, we'll be honest, sounds awful when it's written down. While the musical was a hit, the arrival of the movie has brought this plot to more people and if we know anything about social media, people can have opinions about anything even if they haven't seen it.

Dear Evan Hansen revolves around a misunderstanding that spirals out of control. Evan is asked by his therapist to write letters to himself and while it's meant to be a positive thing, he uses one of these letters to criticise himself.

Photo credit: Universal
Photo credit: Universal

This ends up in the possession of his classmate Connor Murphy (Colton Ryan) who dies by suicide shortly afterwards. Connor's parents see it and assume that Connor wrote the letter to Evan and that they were close friends. Instead of admitting the truth, Evan concocts a fake friendship with Connor, getting closer to his family and his crush Zoe.

The musical's big number 'You Will Be Found' is an inspirational song that becomes a rallying cry to anybody who feels alone, turning Evan into an internet sensation. There has been criticism over the movie presenting Evan as a hero, despite the fact he's essentially benefiting from a teen's suicide.

But while you can criticise the movie for not fully exploring the themes it brings up around suicide and mental illness, it doesn't exactly portray Evan as the hero of his own story. This isn't a tale where he gets the girl and lives happily ever after, and there's only so far that the lie can be stretched.

The movie even makes a smart change to the musical where it's not Evan who sets up a new fundraising project in Connor's name. Instead, it's fellow classmate Alana (Amandla Stenberg) whose role is expanded for the movie, which lends at least more sincerity to that aspect of the story.

Photo credit: Universal
Photo credit: Universal

As with the casting of Platt, it's in the movie's delivery that the weaknesses of the plot are exacerbated. Deciding that it needs a short third act to move away from the musical's two-act structure, the final moments of the movie focus too much on Evan's attempted redemption rather than the consequences of his actions.

This isn't helped by the fact that the role of both Evan's mum Heidi and Connor's mum Cynthia – excellently played by Julianne Moore and Amy Adams, respectively – has been reduced, leading to an increased focus on Evan himself.

It could well be that Dear Evan Hansen is a musical that was never destined to work on screen, although this version never really gave it a chance. Despite a strong cast and terrific songs, it's too sincere and low-key for its own good which only ends up highlighting its missteps.

If it's of any comfort, you will likely have sat through worse movies, but the only thing you'll remember once the credits have rolled is the unfortunate memes.

Dear Evan Hansen is out now in US cinemas and is released in UK cinemas on October 22.

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