In recent years, it seems to have become common practice to have a dialogue about age-appropriate casting. There was a time when casting a late-twentysomething as a high school teenager wasn’t particularly distracting, especially in a serious context. (It should be remembered that just two decades ago, Tobey Maguire was twenty-seven when he played a teenage Peter Parker in Spider-Man — a decision that almost no one balked at.) Nowadays, it seems to best work in that of the heightened worlds of darkly comedic satires and soapy high-school romances. But when then the first trailer of Dear Evan Hansen hit the internet, musicals just might’ve also been crossed off the list, too.
As an adaptation of the hit Broadway show, Dear Evan Hansen seemingly falls into a similar vein of Tom Hooper’s Cats; being that both shows carry apparent, glaring miscalculations sight-unseen. In this movie in particular, there’s both a shockingly clumsy handling of tone and the tittering disbelief of the casting of the nearly twenty-seven-year-old Ben Platt, who won a Tony for originating the lead/title role, as a high school senior. Yet, on the stage, the inherent theatricality of that experience probably made it easier to suspend one’s disbelief. From the early outset of this film adaptation, you begin to ponder the radical justification behind the Platt casting. Maybe it works as a distancing device: His character, Evan, is a high-school outcast who feels alienated from his peers because of his depression and social anxiety. Could making him look radically different than them function in a Brechtian way, as a deliberate representation of how different he feels?
Frankly, I doubt it. His presence underscores the movie’s even larger failing with both the subject matter it deals with and just its general attempts at the fantasy intrusions of the musical. There really aren’t that many songs in this two-hour-seventeen-minute musical, which can make each one’s arrival rather jarring. That could work, in a Dancer In the Dark kind of way: a serious, thoughtful teen drama periodically interrupted by explosions of feeling the characters can only express through song. But director Stephen Chbosky stages the numbers in the same banal, sitting-at-the-table way as the standard dialogue scenes.
It’s hard to shake the feeling that any version of this material as is could walk the tricky tonal tightrope it lays out for itself. The movie centers around a contrived situation in which a letter Evan writes to himself as a therapy exercise falls into the hands of a classmate (Colton Ryan) who takes his own life, leading the boy’s parents (Amy Adams and Danny Pino) to mistake it for their son’s suicide letter and Evan for a close friend, when in reality the two barely knew each other. Again, there’s potential in that premise… which we know because it resembles that of the more provocative Robin Williams comedy World’s Greatest Dad. But Dear Evan Hansen soft-pedals Evan’s murky motives, failing to ever totally confront the extent to which he lets this misunderstanding continue out of a desire to get close to the deceased’s sister (Kaitlyn Dever) and see a rise in his social stock. It’s not to say that the movie is unware that Evan is wrong for what he’s doing; he shows some guilt for much of the runtime. The problem is that the film doesn’t understand just how much he’s in the wrong, as it takes an uncomfortable “have it both ways” stance. The songs, unmemorable in their clumsily conversational delivery and invariably quavering emotion, never dip too deep, though, into Evan’s guilt, fear of exposure, and overwhelmed need to keep a lie of omission going because he’s in too deep. Nor does it show musically reckon with how the borderline kitsch of its big “We Are The World” number — an inspirational group singalong in which Evan’s public “grief” inspires a viral anti-suicide movement — grows out of pure BS he fabricates for a school assembly.
So maybe the stage version is a mess, too. Either way, and with apologies to the film’s star (who may truly have killed it in that context), Platt does seem like the biggest problem here — and not just because he can’t credibly look like someone who’d get carded at the bar. The few times Platt’s performance actually works are when he leans into the more comedic, confident side of Evan — mostly because those are when Platt feels like he’s playing an actual character rather than just his character’s neuroses. For the most part, however, his hunched, twitchy, wide-eyed take doesn’t seem like a believable portrait of social awkwardness so much as just a forced, awkward performance. The smaller, more internal Platt tries to go, the bigger and more out of place he looks. To sell a story this thorny, you either need control in regards to its tone or a lead with enough charisma to paper over the flaws. And despite Platt’s impressive vocals, the magic is nowhere to be found here. Relatable in neither its bizarrely specific plotting nor its broadly generic emotions, Dear Evan Hansen is so self-serious that it almost plays like self-parody, only without any “so bad it’s good” fun. We may all be striving for human connection right now, but we’re unlikely to find any here. Laden with numerous miscalculations, Dear Evan Hansen is almost squeamish in how puzzling it gets with its maudlin and cloying form.
Dear Evan Hansen is currently playing in Theaters nationwide