What makes “Dear Evan Hansen” so awful

Hannah Owens Pierre, section editor

Imagine if you took Jughead’s line “I’m weird. I’m a weirdo. I don’t fit in. And I don’t want to fit in,” from “Riverdale” and made it into a musical movie. And then you took that musical movie and threw an almost 30-year-old man into the lead as a socially anxious high school student fit with a grandma-perm hairstyle and vampire slouch. Then you would be halfway to recreating the mess that is “Dear Evan Hansen.”

Shockingly, the musical “Dear Evan Hansen” is based on is great. It’s a story about a teenager who manipulates a grieving family into believing he was best friends with their son who recently killed himself, all so that he can start dating the deceased student’s sister. On paper, it reads more like a serial killer origin story than a heartwarming coming-of-age tale. And yet, haunting songs by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul combined with a nuanced portrayal of complex characters make it a masterpiece. At the crux of the musical is the believable innocence of the main character Evan. Evan’s youth turns him from a psychopathic liar to a kindhearted yet naive kid who is eventually called out for his behavior. 

Unfortunately, this is where the praise ends, because rather than cast a young, up-and-coming actor who could have conveyed Evan’s innocence, the creative team of “Dear Evan Hansen” the movie chose an adult man who looks like he just hit a mid-life crisis.

It would be easy to spend this entire review talking about how sad and lanky Ben Platt is as Evan. But Platt’s elderly face is only the catalyst for the rest of the movie’s glaring mistakes. Most of the film’s flawed creative decisions are clear attempts to overcompensate for Platt’s age, down to the horrendous acting of Platt himself. Whereas the musical version of Evan is a relatable awkward teenager, Platt’s on-screen performance reeks of the sort of desperation you would expect from a middle-aged adult trying to mimic the mannerisms of a high schooler with no prior research. His absurdly twitchy hands, dramatic hunch, and prosthetic face contortions do nothing to evoke sympathy but add twenty years to his age. Out goes appreciation of subtlety and in comes perennial cringing to the point of excruciating pain. The skin-crawling energy of Platt’s performance is only magnified by the fact that whenever he starts singing, the look on his face tells you he’s just hidden a body. 

In the past few years, there has been a wave of movies based on hit musicals, of which few have succeeded. The ones that haven’t seem to suffer from the same flaw as “Dear Evan Hansen”: None of them know how to be a musical. Director Stephen Chbosky doesn’t know whether he wants to build a world that centers the over-the-top theatrics of Broadway or one of a normal teen drama with a few solos thrown in. He tries to solve this problem by telling the cast to spend each number alternating between singing under their breath and shouting at the audience. What’s more, the songs are incorporated bizarrely. In one scene, Platt is talking at a dinner table when a synthesizer cuts him off mid-sentence. He suddenly belts into song while making hard eye contact with the group of regular character surrounding him who seem completely unphased by what’s going on. 

Characters that could have redeemed the film are reduced to props in what feels like a pure testament to Platt’s arrogance. Songs from the source material that centered characters other than Evan, including the song in which he finally faces repercussions for his actions, are cut from the movie in favor of focusing on what the director must have interpreted as Platt’s heavenly performance. Great actors from the original like Rachel Bay Jones, who gave a Tony Award-winning performance as Evan’s mom, are absent, presumably because Jones’ dad didn’t produce the film, unlike Platt. 

If you showed up to the theatre expecting a powerful message about mental health, turn back around. Every attempt at a social message is so heavy-handed that you are compelled to believe the opposite. It’s remarkable how “Dear Evan Hansen” takes itself entirely seriously despite being jam-packed with wall-to-wall cringe. At one point halfway through, the writers are trying to show that a character is struggling with mental health. They do this by having that character unironically introduce themselves to another teenager who they have known for all of five seconds by saying, “What prescription are you on? I take Zoloft.” No, I’m not kidding. That is a real scene. And one that made me burst out in laughter, which I don’t think was the intended effect. 

All in all, I think it is fair to say that “Dear Evan Hansen”  is a movie that will never be forgotten. And there is no better summary of its essence than the title of the YouTube video that flashes across the screen in the middle of the movie’s emotional climax: “His Best Friend Died…You Won’t Believe What He Did Next!”