I liked Ben Platt’s work in The Politician on Netflix, so initially I was interested in watching Dear Evan Hansen, based on a Broadway musical of the same name. I’d had no prior familiarity with it.
Here’s a synopsis from Google:
Evan Hansen is an anxious, isolated high-school student who’s aching for understanding and belonging amid the chaos and cruelty of the social media age. He soon embarks on a journey of self-discovery when a letter he wrote for a writing exercise falls into the hands of a grieving couple whose son took his own life.
Then I read the Letterboxd reviews and changed my mind. They were almost universally, almost viscerally negative:
“Genuinely and unredeemably [sic] awful.”
“Today was supposed to be an amazing day and here’s why: it’s my birthday. Turns out, this wasn’t an amazing day after all, because I saw you. And you make me wanna kill myself on my birthday.”
“Fucking reprehensible. It will win 10 Golden Globes”
In a comparatively less snarky but no less disapprobative review, Taylor Baker writes, “The film fails to take off foundationally [sic]. It is absent intent, specificity, empathy, nuance, and originality.”
Of course, a series of adjectives don’t constitute an argument except on Letterboxd, and I have no idea what “taking off foundationally” even means. If Baker does, he’s not revealing it in this review.
Read some risky writing.
(Nevertheless, I could rebut without much effort every single one of those descriptors, even though I don’t like the film much myself. For one and three, the intent of the film is fundamentally to induce empathy from the audience for the main character. That’s not happening with this crowd. In fact, the attempt to induce empathy in and of itself seems to be what the mob is so upset about.)
Still, after all that, I was not prepared for the unfiltered opprobrium dumped on, not mainly the film, but on Ben Platt himself, spewed continuously in a wildly popular review by Esther Rosenfeld.
Attacks on Ben Platt’s appearance — specifically but not exclusively focused on looking too old for the part — constitute the bulk of what we might misjudge on first read as some kind of argument, that is, until we realize how personal her objections are:
“ben platt’s puffy, doughy visage”
“exaggerated hunch, hysterically twitchy hands, and latex-smooth prosthetics”
“looks like an undercover cop”
“platt is terrible here”
“ben platt’s horrible face”
“a parade of death masks, an endless montage of grotesquerie”
Rosenfeld also references the fact that Platt’s dad produced the film and that, on Broadway, one of the series of actors who played the main character was Platt’s current boyfriend (emphasis hers). Those both strike me as curious non-sequiturs, even in the context she’s trying to take her sophistic stand within: that Platt’s casting was nepotistic and egomaniacal. Is this unusual? We are talking about typical and utterly unremarkable behaviors in Broadway and Hollywood circles here, aren’t we? OK, just checking.
It’s easy to ascertain what Rosenfield is really so upset about that so many, many people on Letterboxd identify with her ire and reward her with so much social capital — 8,058 likes as of this writing — and it can be summed up thusly: Forgiveness is not allowed; empathy for fucked-up people is not allowed.
But it’s worse than that. Rosenfield doesn’t even want us to decide for ourselves:
According to her, Dear Evan Hansen is “a musical whose every number sounds like it’s straight from a teen worship service at our lady of perpetual grooming, a story that…could only be enjoyed by budding serial killers. don’t mistake this review for an endorsement, don’t trick yourself into thinking this movie must be seen to be believed. all you really need to look at is a single image of ben platt’s horrible face to get the full experience…”
This sort of smart-alecky “reasoning” is by no means unusual for Letterboxd, where reasoning is not often rewarded. Instead, her tirade is part condemnation of apostasy, with Rosenfield & co. as proctors, and part cryptically homophobic, lookist, and ageist personal attack. That it exists is bad enough, if par for the course these days. What’s depressing is the acclaim and the lack of pushback, especially coming from generations of young people who are always preening about their wokeness, if never about their temperance or judgment.
In sum, it’s unapologetically nasty and one of the shittiest reviews on Letterboxd I’ve read in a while. I would be ashamed to have my name attached to it.
The differences in perspective on this film may not be simply ideological and dispositional, which is what they sound like in extremity to my ears. The opinions of two of my older gay male friends, one of them a film-studies specialist, both liked the movie and made me think there was something else going on.
One agrees with me about the near-universal hatred of the film:
I’m at a loss. There must be a generational thing going here. Where others see a lying, sociopath anti-hero, I see a tortured teenager with absent and neglectful parents who deserved my empathy.
The other made these observations:
The songs, which are an endless series of interior monologues and soliloquies, forge invisible tunnels down busy school hallways, neighborhoods and inside houses. The film manages to critique the iniquities as well as celebrate the virtues of social media — which has become a nemesis and a generator of instant fame at the same time. In this way it addresses the loneliness, isolation and pain of the adolescent outlier, and at this point, it has no rivals.
As for Platt not looking the right age for the part, in some cases he did look, if not older then worn, tired, and burdened. In those cases, his appearance worked with the overall intent. But often he did look like a high-school kid, at least to me. But in the end, I don’t think it matters unless you’re looking for unassailably subjective positions from which to fulminate.