By Al Kratina
Jan 22, 2007 - 20:10
Starring: Jennifer Hudson, Jamie Fox, Beyoncé Knowles, Eddie Murphy
Directed by: Bill Condon
Written by: Bill Condon (screenplay), Tom Eyen (book)
Produced by: Laurence Mark
Genres: Drama, Musical
Release Date: December 25, 2006
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for language, some sexuality and drug content.
Distributors: Dreamworks SKG
The musical genre, once Hollywood's top moneymaker, died a slow and miserable death in the 1950s. However, thanks to modern medical advancements, the genre has been revived. Unfortunately, many of the skin grafts and cosmetic changes performed upon the musical to make it more palatable to modern audiences have not taken well, and the form has become gangrenous, shambling, and grotesque, a bloated cinematic nightmare. It is in this confused patchwork and oppressive miasma of putrefaction that Dreamgirls exists, with healthy, robust elements of modern cinematic convention slowly necrotizing alongside decaying remnants of film days gone by.
The story of the Supremes, camouflaged just enough to avoid lawsuits and royalty payments, Dreamgirls is yet another adaptation of a Broadway play, most likely because no screenwriter wants to endure the locker room shame of writing an original musical. All the plotlines in the film are as broad and clichéd as you’d expect, from the successful but artistically bereft record producer to the faded, drug-addicted singer, and coupled with awkward, fourth wall shattering musical sequences, Dreamgirls halts any of the progressive momentum Chicago gave to the genre. Instead, it revels in all the worst excesses of past musicals, suffering from the same ailments that felled the genre in the first place. The story is too familiar, and the musical numbers too jarring. The film is about performers or musicians, so one would assume the music and dance numbers contained in concert and rehearsal scenes would be enough to provide motivated, justified musical scenes. But while those scenes are present, there are 3 or 4 occasions where the characters burst into song spontaneously, singing to each other or to the camera instead of onstage, to an audience. These few instances don’t occur often enough to establish a stylist trend, but plenty often enough to be annoying and disjointing, like a porn movie with intertitles. Chicago, for all its flaws, at least had motivation to its endless musical numbers. By presenting them as fantasy sequences the film felt coherent and stylistically unified. In Dreamgirls, however, the rough mix of diegetic performance sequences with the occasional random burst of song is awkward and a little embarrassing. It's made doubly so, since those scenes are used to emphasize emotional beats in the story, and it ends up roughly approximating Shakespeare recited with flatulence as punctuation.
But the movie is not without its charms, to be sure. The story of a group of female singers who rise to stardom under the guiding hand of a car salesman-turned-record producer is predictable, to be sure, but the characters really bring writer/director Bill Condon's script to life. They're all flawed, some fatally so, and though this does occasionally cause the characters to become unlikeable, it adds some much needed realism and depth to the story. It also helps to endear the characters to the audience, which to an extent helps bridge the disconnect caused by the fragmenting musical numbers. The only character that seems whitewashed and boring is Deena Jones, played by Beyoncé Knowles, whose handlers apparently believe that one blue word and some bushy eyebrows are enough to make her character 'real'. But, her tame performance is the exception that proves the rule. Jennifer Hudson, in particular, as the Dreams' original lead singer, is a revelation as a diva in training. And Eddie Murphy, who gives us the rise and fall of a soul singer as a subplot, is surprisingly good for someone who makes a living dressing up as fat women. The costumes and cinematography are exceptional, elevating the musical sequences almost above their awkwardness. But ultimately, those scenes, and the movie, are as flawed as the characters, and nowhere near as endearing.
Rating: 6 on 10
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