First ‘Dear Evan Hansen’ reviews sharply divide critics

Fans of the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical “Dear Evan Hansen” were left waving through the window on Thursday night as the big-screen adaptation of the hit production made its debut at the Toronto International Film Festival. But despite its lauded pedigree, an all-star cast that includes Oscar winner Julianne Moore and perennial academy favorite Amy Adams, and Ben Platt returning to his Tony Award-winning breakthrough role, many critics were left underwhelmed by the production.

“In a year with a well-above-average number of musicals popping up on the big screen (‘In the Heights,’ ‘Everybody’s Talking About Jamie,’ ‘West Side Story,’ ‘Cyrano,’ ‘Tick, Tick … Boom!’), ‘Dear Evan Hansen’ is the farthest below average in terms of actual merit: a curve-crashing after-school special, dressed up with so-so songs (not so much show tunes as lightweight pop-music imitations), about how people process tragedy in the age of oversharing,” Peter Debruge wrote for Variety.

“If there were any chance of making this character look like something other than a monster, it rested on emphasizing his raw youth, which makes the casting of an OBVIOUSLY GROWN MAN JUST HUNCHING HIS SHOULDERS an act of sabotage that’s near avant-garde,” New York critic Alison Wilmore wrote on Twitter, referencing the pre-release talking point about Platt, who turns 28 later this month, reprising his role as a high schooler for the film.

For Vanity Fair, critic Richard Lawson also took issue with Platt and the musical’s overall message. 

“Evan Hansen need not be a lovable, nor even likable, character. But as the wet-eyed center of this bulldozer of a show, so engineered as an emotional wringer that would sell lots of original cast recordings (and now soundtracks), he is inevitably valorized, let to stroll off into the golden sun with the audience applauding after him, while a whole family is still devastated,” Lawson wrote. “This is a problem of tone, really, and of the ear-wormy, artisanal sugar of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s music, which dutifully gives the lead soaring, poptimistic ballads he doesn’t deserve.”

Based on the musical by Steven Levenson (who adapted his Tony Award-winning book for the film’s screenplay) and directed by Stephen Chbosky, “Dear Evan Hansen” is about the title character, a high school outcast who becomes a nationwide sensation after stumbling into a massive lie about his friendship with a fellow student, Connor (Colton Ryan), who died by suicide. Throughout the story, Evan becomes closely entangled with Connor’s family, including his mother (played by Amy Adams) and sister (played by Kaitlyn Dever), who believe Evan to be Connor’s only true friend — a case of mistaken identity that spirals out of control.

Even the acclaimed musical, which won six Tony Awards, faced criticism for its embrace of the Evan Hansen character who, in essence, deceives a grieving family. “The trickiest thing all along has been how much we’re on Evan’s side in this, how much we want to like him, how much we do like him and how much we want to forgive him,” Levenson told The Hollywood Reporter.

In adapting his production for the screen, Levenson sought to make the struggle Evan faces more practical. “When you’re dealing with film, there’s a lot less forgiveness in terms of what you can get away with, as far as human behavior and what people can get on board with,” Platt told THR. “You really have to understand, in every moment, why he’s doing what he’s doing and why’s not just standing up and yelling, ‘Everybody! Stop! This is why!’ So I think Steven, in the adaptation, made a real point of making sure that in the principal’s office [when his relationship with Connor, the boy who died by suicide, is first assumed] Evan is doing everything he can to combat it until he just can’t. And when he goes over for dinner, he’s going with the intention of telling the truth, and that’s very clear, but once again there’s a wall that he hits and he has no choice but to kind of go along with it.”

But while many of the negative reviews found Evan to be a character too flawed to engage with, not everyone who has seen the film thus far came to it in the same way. 

“The fact that a movie isn’t exactly the way you’d like it to be has nothing to do with whether or not it is a good movie,” The Hollywood Reporter awards expert Scott Feinberg wrote on Twitter. “I’m seeing a lot of reactions to DEAR EVAN HANSEN from people who don’t seem to get this.” (Feinberg also wrote the publication’s oral history of the movie.)

“Suspend disbelief beyond the musical tropes and snark about lead casting, it’s a moving and effective take with exceptional performances, that takes a sticky story and makes it work within the context of an emotional piece that earns its tears,” critic Jason Gorber wrote on Twitter.

“The absence of a more cohesive unifying tone is noticeable in director Chbosky’s nonmusical renderings, which also occasionally struggle to find an agreeable balance between the theatrical and the melodramatic,” added The Hollywood Reporter critic Michael Rechtshaffen. But, he wrote, “Despite the pesky distractions, Platt and company still manage to deliver the right message at precisely the right time.”

“Dear Evan Hansen” is out in theaters on September 24 via Universal Pictures.

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