Why are Critics Unhappy With ‘Dear Evan Hansen’?

On the opening night of the Toronto International Film Festival, Dear Evan Hansen premiered. The movie is based on the Tony-award-winning musical of the same name. The cast of the movie boasted talented actors, like Julianne Moore, Amy Adams, Kaitlyn Dever. And Ben Platt, who won the Tony Award for his role as Evan Hansen in the broadway musical.

The success of its off-broadway and broadway productions provided a safety net for the movie. Or perhaps a hope that the movie will mimic the musical’s success.

What happened was quite the opposite.

Julianne Moore, in a black jacket and grey dress, and Ben Platt in a black and white suit, attend the premiere of 'Dear Evan Hansen' at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2021.
Julianne Moore and Ben Platt | Ryan Emberley/Getty Images for Universal Pictures

‘Dear Evan Hansen’ features a 27-year-old Ben Platt playing a high-school boy

And this was one of the issues that the critics took with the movie. Not to say that this hasn’t been done countless times in both TV and film because it has. The critics, however, had particular issues. Platt’s visibly done make-up and hunched back failed to portray him as a troubled, introverted teen.

Nate Jones of Vulture explained it as “the Michael Jackson paradox.” He wrote, “In the ‘90s, films like Cruel Intentions and She’s All That got away with casting actors in their late 20s as teens because they owned it; no one was trying to make viewers believe Paul Walker or Ryan Phillipe was an actual minor. But it also worked because the characters were swaggering alphas. Here, having a grown man play a diffident introvert makes him read not as vulnerable, but as shifty and evasive.”

Platt played Evan Hansen both onstage and on-screen. He was 22 when the musical premiered on stage. 

Even if, for a second, critics spare the poor makeup and casting decisions, the movie had a more glaring problem.

The movie comes across as emotionally manipulative

Apart from a few songs and character changes, Steven Levenson kept both versions largely the same. But that backfired. 

Evan Hansen is a lonely teen with mental health issues of anxiety and depression. Things change for him when his bully dies by suicide. Hansen fakes friendship with him to get closer to his sister, to make friends, and to become popular.

The Atlantic’s David Sims watched the off-broadway production and the movie. He notes how the stage version got away with what the film could not. He calls the film “an unmitigated disaster.”

“In both theatrical and cinematic forms, Dear Evan Hansen is a clever but convoluted story that utterly fails to resolve the thorny morality tale at its center. But where the live version could paper over those narrative shortcomings with inventive stagecraft, the movie can’t get around the moribund visuals of its musical numbers–which look extremely staid on the big screen.”

The director, Stephen Chbosky, could have used the premise to explore the dark and complex character of Hansen. But, much like the broadway musical, the movie focuses more on a sympathetic version of Hansen. 

“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[Hansen] is inevitably valorized,” Vanity Fair’s Richard Lawson wrote. “Let to stroll off into the golden sun with the audience applauding after him, while a whole family is still devastated.”

In the end, the movie failed to captivate the audience the way the musical did

Dear Evan Hansen had its problems during its off-broadway and Broadway run as well. But the musical’s onstage feel saved it then. Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s emotional and hopeful ballads drove the emotional arc of the Broadway production. But their magic did not work on cinema critics.

“The Benj Pasek and Justin Paul penned songs, such as Only Us, Requiem, Sincerely, Me, etc. are a ramshackled assemblage of garish arrangements and even worse lyrics that ring with the artificial tinge of a plastic lollipop,” Robert Daniels of RogerEbert.com wrote.

Several critics called out the movie for its tonal and visual fallacies. But the movie still received praises for the supporting cast and their acting. Even as critics crowd against the movie, the jury on the audience reaction is still out. 

Dear Evan Hansen comes to theaters on Sep. 24.


RELATED: Is ‘Dear Evan Hansen’ Based on a Real Story?