Saturday, December 30, 2006

REVIEW: Dreamgirls

A sampling of song lyrics from "Dreamgirls":

We are family
like a giant tree
branching out toward the sky

I'm sorry, but that's f*cking awful. "We are family, like a giant tree?" Seriously? And keep in mind, this is an in-story song, not part of a performance, which occurs at a pivotal moment with essentially the entire main cast circling one another, somberly intoning these inane, syrupy lyrics like some kind of holy scripture. Oh, and whenever the lyrics get to an "e" sound, everyone takes turns stretching it out in that loud, show-offy throw-my-voice-all-over-the-grid-to-prove-what-amazing-range-I-have fashion.

Eggh, what a frustrating movie...

"Dreamgirls" is one of those based-0n-a-Broadway-classic movies that you're only supposed to critique in terms of the skill of the adaptation and the visual work. The dialogue, the characters, the lyrics, the MEAT of the thing... you "can't" criticize that, because the original stage version won a mess of Tonys back in the day, and it's been pre-enshrined as "great." Fooey! No, I haven't seen "Dreamgirls" the play before seeing the movie, but I know melodramatic fluff when I see it and if the play boasts the same trite, hammy dialogue and obvious, cheeseball lyrics then it's likely not all that good, either.

The story, just so we're clear, is a roman a clef biopic of "The Supremes" and, by proxy, Diana Ross, Berry Gordy and the Motown musical phenomenon. "The Dreams" are a black female singing trio who get they're big break when ambitious would-be manager/producer Curtis Taylor Jr. (Jamie Foxx in the Not Berry Gordy role) drafts them as backup singers to flamboyant R&B artist James "Thunder" Early (Eddie Murphy in a sensational, show-stealing James Brown/Marvin Gaye riff) in the early 1960s. Fame soon has them touring as an act unto themselves, the cash-cow of Taylor's Motown-esque "Rainbow Records" label.

Frustrated by the reality that "black music" can't become mainstream until it's appropriated and re-sung by white artists, Taylor masterminds a break into the charts by loosening the "soul" of the music and re-tooling his artists as friendly, non-threatening pop acts. A key part of his master plan is a lineup-change in "The Dreams": moving "full-figured" soul-belting lead Effie White (Jennifer Hudson, late of the national embarassment known as "American Idol") to backup and putting slender, fair-featured Deena Jones (Beyonce Knowles as Not Diana Ross) into the lead. It works, as everyone gets rich and Deena becomes a megastar, but this and other events soon spiral into blah, blah, blah... ...and everyone learns a valuable lesson about being true to yourself.

The movie is predictable, plain and simple, and as a result no amount of musical heart-pouring or directorial flourish can keep it from being a crushingly dull exercise. Even if you don't know thing one about the history of Motown, you can pretty-much chart the entire story's progress from the first scene where we see the girls together and Effie complains about wearing a wig because "store-bought hair AIN'T natural!" You know what her arc is, and what the arc of the movie will be, and what everyone will have to learn. Everyone is a broad archetype, a caricature in a larger-than-life Gospel According To Oprah morality play ruminating on it's First and Second Commandments: Thou Shalt Keepeth It Real! and Thou Shalt GO, Girl!

The movie's heart is in the right place, and it's not that these messages aren't worth repeating.. it's just so blunt and shallow about it. Being true to yourself is important. Selling out is bad. Power corrupts. Some things are more important than money. Already knew all that? Well, too bad, because the film doesn't have any depth beyond those fortune cookie nuggets right there. It's not BAD, in the direct sense, it's just not much of anything. I didn't care.

The musical numbers, ironically the most difficult part of adapting a musical to the screen, are a mixed bag. Most of the songs are trite, though earnestly performed, and the ones that don't occur in the context of a performance or recording session all come off weird and forced: It doesn't happen enough, so when the characters "in-story" break into song it comes off jarring, silly and yanks one right out of the story. Say what you will about "Phantom of The Opera," but this is why they sing almost every damn word they say in it, so they won't have this problem. Jennifer Hudson's fearsome performance of "I'm Telling You" is, as you've heard, a showstopping and potentially starmaking moment... but it's just that, a moment, an isolated vignette that barely registers as part of a fractured, narratively incohesive film.

The highlights, where they are, are in the acting department. Hudson is a genuine talent and a terrific singer, though she tends to overact here in a manner that (to me) suggests poor direction than poor acting decisions on her part (memo to the filmmakers: We get it. Effie is a Proud Black Woman. WE GET IT. It is overkill to have her delivering every major "big" line swinging her head around like it's mounted on a spring. That's caricature, and it doesn't work.) Foxx is basically doing a Mephistopholean upgrade on his slick huckster bit from the "Booty Call" era, but it works. Danny Glover shines in a small but important role. But for me, the turn to celebrate comes from Eddie Murphy, giving probably his finest performance in a decade or more imbuing "Thunder" Early with great sympathy, energy and power. It's a fantastic "I'm still here and I still matter!" job from him, and my interest in the story leaves whenever he does, period.

Beyonce'... look, I'm sorry, but this is the final proof: She's not even a good actress when she's essentially PLAYING BEYONCE' KNOWLES. Can we please stick a fork in this doomed attempt to turn her into a movie star, already? She's pretty, she can sing, can we let that be enough, please?

I tried real hard to find a way to like this, and I just don't. At best, I can't completely despise any film that theorizes the invention of Disco as an apocalyptic event, but that's all. That this is already being talked up as a serious Oscar contender, and even a likely winner, is depressing but not at all surprising: It's a safe, shallow, utterly un-challenging bluehair-approved showpeice with ham-handed writing and sledgehammer-delivered moralizing.

Oh, well.


1 comment:

Rhea said...

I have not seen the film yet, but I was lucky enough to be working in the entertainment press in Boston on the night that "Dreamgirls" opened for out-of-town tryouts. So I got to see/hear Jennifer Holliday sing that amazing song live for the first time! So many years later, I still remember the power of that performance.