Even though it introduces a new crop of fans to its hummable soundtrack, “Dear Evan Hansen” is the perfect example of why not every hit Broadway musical should be made into a movie.
At least it’s a well-meaning misfire on the part of director Stephen Chbosky (“The Perks of Being a Wallflower”). On paper, bringing back the aspects that rocketed “Evan Hansen” to “Hamilton”-esque popularity and a raft of Tony Awards – from the beloved Benj Pasek and Justin Paul songs to the OG Evan, Ben Platt – seems like a sure thing, especially tossing in Amy Adams and Julianne Moore. But the movie version (★★ out of four; rated PG-13; in theaters Friday) is simply a poor adaptation, trading the vibrancy and refreshing spirit of the original show for all-too-familiar teen-movie angst, with an out of place leading man.
'See the movie': 'Dear Evan Hansen' director has no doubts about Ben Platt's casting
A high school senior with crippling social anxiety, Evan (Platt) has been assigned by his therapist to write positive letters to himself, though a printout of one accidentally falls into the hands of troubled classmate Connor (Colton Ryan). Evan worries that he’s going to post it online and make him more of a pariah, but instead, the letter is mistaken for a suicide note when Connor is found dead by his parents (Adams and Danny Pino).
The “Dear Evan Hansen” letter and the fact that Connor had signed Evan’s arm cast (how it was broken is a mystery slowly revealed in the film) leads Connor’s mom to believe that Evan was their son’s only friend. A concocted “relationship” that Evan furthers first because it seems to help the family – including Connor's sister, and Evan's crush, Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever) – but as the lie grows out of control, he also finds increased popularity. It all leads to a moment where Evan goes viral worldwide, only for the falsehoods to karmically fall back on him.
The “Evan Hansen” movie is fairly faithful to its source material. The character of Evan’s activist classmate Alana (played by “The Hate U Give” standout Amandla Stenberg) gets a more fleshed-out role and a new song, though it adds a bothersome disconnect to her actions later in the plot. And that rather dark conceit, of a teenage protagonist purposefully deceiving a grieving family, plays better in a musical-theater setting. For those “Evan Hansen” newcomers seeing the movie, it reads a bit more cruel and unusual, even if you can understand kids making dumb mistakes before learning from them – with show tunes involved.
And Platt can still belt those earworming, poppy songs like a champ. He’s also effective at portraying Evan’s mental health struggles: In the well-conceived opening number (which plays off the inherent surreality of a movie musical), he sings “Waving Through a Window” – Evan’s song where he yearns for peer attention – walking through a busy school completely unnoticed. Yet as the movie goes along, the slouching and awkwardly earnest Platt stands out in the wrong way. Adams and Moore, as Evan’s working single mom, are solid additions, though, and Dever’s also superb, even if Evan and Zoe’s budding relationship seems forced.
The biggest problem, though, isn't that Platt's too old for the part (though that doesn't help); it's the adaptation itself. Instead of embracing the nuance of the show, Chbosky has made an overlong young adult drama with some people randomly singing in it. The “Sincerely, Me” sequence, where Evan and his friend Jared (Nik Dodani) fashion fake emails between Evan and Connor, is the one moment that most captures the joyous nature of the Broadway musical but is so unlike the entire rest of the movie, which painfully devolves into a teen-movie slog.
Recently filmed productions of “Hamilton” and “Come From Away” wondrously carry over the Great White Way experience, while the recent adaptation of “Everybody’s Talking About Jamie” offers a dazzling take on the West End musical. “Dear Evan Hansen” frustratingly falls in between, espousing the importance of empathy and connection but in a disappointing package.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Dear Evan Hansen': Musical film fails to match Broadway show's energy