Genre: Drama, Music, Musical
Director: Bill Condon
Screenwriters: Bill Condon
Starring: Beyoncé, Jamie Foxx, Eddie Murphy
Dreamgirls will mark the beginning of a long and almost certainly wonderful career for Jennifer Hudson, the American Idol cast-off who has now managed to leave her fellow contestants in the dust. Her musical numbers inspired multiple — yes — standing ovations at the screening I attended. She will be a sensation. And she will deserve it.
The film is, alas, another matter. It may be a sensation as well; its supporters are nothing if not enthusiastic, and audiences seem to be responding. But I have to call shenanigans on its repetitive, shamelessly “crowd-pleasing” theatrics. It’s busy, and it’s big, and it has plenty of great singing, but it fails at a basic level: it doesn’t tell a good story, not really.
In one sense, the story is just fine, with detestable villains, iconically resilient heroes, and several character arcs that triumphantly tie together and resolve to thunderous applause. But the attempts to stylize the proceedings — to create a quasi-fantasy world of early-60’s pop music that’s mythical in scope — backfire. The plot is ultimately beholden to the style, and the story gets told in a way that’s a little silly, a lot repetitive, and saddest of all, quite a bit tedious.
It would be one thing if director Bill Condon — whose rather cerebral filmography (Candyman II: Farewell to the Flash notwithstanding) didn’t suggest he had this movie in him — adeptly pulled off all the glitter, glitz and flash. But in fact his staging of this Broadway adaptation is awkward, sometimes painfully so; for a while, I thought the film was a musical only in the sense of having periodic performances by the characters for on-screen audiences, as part of the story, and by the time it busts out a bona-fide bursting-into-song-and-dance musical musical number, it seems to come out of nowhere. The second of these is a showstopper in every sense of the word — spectacularly attenuated and quite a showcase for Hudson’s pipes, it’s becoming a hit if the internet buzz is on the mark, but it stops the movie cold and refuses to end. Is it churlish to say that, all things considered, I wish it weren’t there?
So it’s important to note that, to begin with, Dreamgirls isn’t exactly a genre masterpiece; that, I think, is hard to legitimately dispute. Beyond that, my reaction is more personal: I wasn’t feeling the heat. Hudson’s Effie White, put upon and cast aside, her beautiful, soulful voice abandoned for the sake of crass pop commercialism, is a sufficiently sympathetic protagonist, but my sympathy was more conceptual than genuine — she never won my heart. A major plot point is that the male leads — one an old-school crooner played by Eddie Murphy, the other a cynical and ambitious producer played by Jamie Foxx — are pursued by every woman within a five mile radius, which never quite clicked for me, though I understand the target archetype. And Beyonce Knowles’ character is abandoned for a while and then brought back for purported emotional heft, which also struck me as a non-starter.
There’s also the matter of my musical sympathies, which didn’t exactly align with the film’s: I like smooth, polished, hooky pop music, and am sort of indifferent to soulful R&B.; This made watching Dreamgirls — which treats the commercial motivations that make the Murphy and Hudson characters into has-beens (at least temporarily) with some disdain — a strange experience: I wasn’t sure what I was rooting for. In fairness, the film is not entirely one-sided in this regard; the ultra-flashy Beyonce Knowles-led numbers aren’t supposed to be bad in any sense, just artistically cheap and inferior. But I kept begging to differ.
On one hand, the burgeoning popularity of this film instinctively makes me want to be apologetic about my distaste for it. On the other hand, no: this is the kind of movie that has been calculated to appeal to the greatest possible number as “escapist entertainment,” without regard for the fact that though it beeps and flashes in lots of different colors, it’s not actually that good, or thought through, or well-executed. This is evidenced by the fact that Dreamgirls has been the 2006 Oscar frontrunner for, oh, about a year now. If everyone’s already made up his mind, then what’s the point? There are a few films this season worthy of rapt adulation, but Dreamgirls is not one of them.