The New York Times' Jeanette Catsoulis is not a big fan of the film Dear Evan Hansen. She's not alone there. Others have grumbled that the 28-year-old Ben Platt is a bit long in the tooth to be playing a high schooler who hasn't been left back at least ten times. But that incomparable voice of Platt! Who'd want to miss out on that?
And to be able to see the actor who created a major role on stage recreate it on screen does carry some resonance. Who wouldn't saw off their left pinky to see Ethel Merman belt out "Everything’s Coming Up Roses" in Mervyn LeRoy's Gypsy (1962) as opposed to Rosalind Russell's slightly more phlegmatic take?
Yes, the screen can be unforgiving when it comes to hiding age, although Jesse Royce Landis played Cary Grant's mother in Hitchcock's North by Northwest, and she was less than eight years older. Lucille Ball apparently was shot through heavy gauze for Mame, and who can forget Robert DeNiro's non-Botoxed youth-enizing in The Irishman?
What's problematic here is Catsoulis's analysis of Evan's character. She writes:
"Dear Evan Hansen is the story of a liar, an accomplished fabulist who uses a troubled classmate's self-harm to gain popularity. Yet the movie . . . wants us not only to sympathize with this character, but ultimately forgive him. That's a very big ask."
Catsoulis ends her assessment with: "Treacly and manipulative, Dear Evan Hansen turns villain into victim and grief into an exploitable vulnerability. It made me cringe." Kudos to director Stephen Chbosky for that.
Now anyone who has experienced the Broadway show or the film is immediately aware that Evan is a highly medicated, introverted, friendless youth lacking any socializing abilities. He is seeing a shrink who asks Evan to write letters to himself to help the teen break out of his shell and live his life at last. (Note: Evan sports a broken arm, for a reason that further shatters Catsoulis’s defective assessment of the tale.)
One day, a belligerent, emotionally challenged fellow student, Connor Murphy (Colton Ryan), the brother of the girl Evan has a crush on, forcibly signs Evan’s cast, steals one of Evan’s letters, and within two days commits suicide. Connor’s parents discover Evan’s missive and falsely believe Connor wrote it to Evan.
Did Connor really have a friend? How come he never mentioned Evan? Why is Connor's name in big broad letters inscribed on Evan's cast?
The tongue-tied Evan keeps trying to tell the truth that he was not Connor's buddy, that he barely knew him, but Connor's mother (Amy Adams) wants none of that. With her sad puppy-dog eyes, she pleads with the teen to tell her the truth as she wants it to be. Consequently, he tells one lie about Connor and him spending a day in the woods together, climbing trees. This eventually leads to Evan creating more tales and correspondence supposedly between him and Connor, all done to salve the Murphys's grieving.
So where is Evan being a villain? Does he know his actions will transform him into a national hero for wounded souls once he makes a speech about Connor that goes viral on the Internet? Can he predict he will be taken in as an emotional replacement and given a seat at the table by the dead boy's family?
Evan is trying to be good, but he's a teenager. He's battered into celebrity. Events overcome his ability to control them. He's suddenly popular. He travels from unseen dweeb to applauded hero, and for a moment Evan is no longer a misfit.
Similarly, the aspiring drag queen in the other current teen-based musical in town, Everyone's Talking About Jamie, has his flaws. Jamie's continuously, at times aggravatingly, self-involved. For instance, he insists his best friend stop studying for her finals to help him with his eyebrows . . . but he's only 16, Ms. Catsoulis.
Of course, adults suffer from trying to be nice, too. Stefan Zweig wrote a great novel, Beware of Pity (1939), detailing how a single act of kindness based on an untruth can lead to tragedy. Radu Muntean's Intregalde, which is being showcased at this year's New York Film Festival, argues that without limitations, good intentions can sometimes lead to near-dire consequences.
But for an insightful response to Evan's journey, just read the 2016 critique from the Times's former theater critic Christopher Isherwood of the musical:
"As the title character in Dear Evan Hansen, a lonely teenager who inadvertently becomes a social media sensation and a symbol of the kindness that is often cruelly absent in high school hallways, the marvelous young actor Ben Platt is giving a performance that's not likely to be bettered on Broadway this season. . .
"His Evan is a startling jumble of exposed nerve endings. His eyes blink in continual embarrassment at the twisted pretzels of words that tumble from his mouth whenever he has to interact socially, which isn't often. He quails at the thought of having to make small talk with a pizza delivery guy. Underneath the thick layers of insecurity, however, Mr. Platt transmits the yearning heart and the desperation for affection -- or even just attention -- that ultimately gets Evan into deep trouble."
Mr. Isherwood ends his review with: "The show 'should . . . appeal to just about anyone who has ever felt, at some point in life, that he or she was trapped 'on the outside looking in,' as one lyric has it. Which is just about everybody with a beating heart."
With any film, folks can disagree with the casting, the direction, the screenplay, its length, and so forth, but to call Evan Hansen a "villain" makes one wonder what's beating within Ms. Catsoulis's chest.