It’s always a let down when a movie doesn’t live up to your expectations.
Take, for example, “Dear Evan Hansen,” Steven Chbosky’s new film version of the Tony-winning Broadway musical that made stars of its lead actor (Ben Platt) and songwriters (Benj Pasek and Justin Paul). Based on the less-than-favorable buzz – especially around the choice to let Platt reprise a role for which he was now a decade too old – that dominated online conversation around it in the weeks before its release, I walked into the theater fully expecting to see an appallingly terrible movie.
To my deep disappointment, it was not. Don’t get me wrong – it wasn’t a great one, either. It just wasn’t the so-bad-it’s-good disaster I was looking forward to hating.
If you’re unfamiliar, “Evan Hansen” is the tale of a teenager (Platt) returning to school for his senior year after a traumatic summer experience. Struggling with severe social anxiety, he lives with a divorced mother (Julianne Moore) who works extra shifts to make ends meet. Assigned by his therapist to write himself encouraging letters every day, his life turns upside down when a classmate named Connor (Colton Ryan) intercepts one such letter and takes it from him. When Connor takes his own life a few days later, his parents (Amy Adams, Danny Pino) find the letter in his pocket and mistakenly think it was written by their son to a secret friend; they reach out to Evan, hoping to hear stories about a happier Connor than the angry loner they knew at home. Though he tries at first to correct their misunderstanding, his desire to ease their grief soon has him inventing a friendship that never existed. It’s a well-intentioned lie that soon snowballs on the internet, making Evan a viral sensation and putting him at the center of an online awareness-raising movement called The Connor Project – not to mention gaining him the attention of Connor’s sister Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever), who has been his longtime crush from afar. When things inevitably begin to spiral out of his control, he is forced to recognize that building a new life for himself on a falsehood might have consequences he never had in mind – but can he muster the courage to come clean and expose himself to the world as a fraud before it’s too late to reverse the damage he’s already done?
The stage original was a hit on Broadway in 2015, but despite its popularity and accolades, it was not without its detractors. Critics and audiences alike found numerous reasons to be uncomfortable with its premise – not the least of which involved the questionable ethics at its core. The movie, which was adapted by Steven Levenson from his original book for the show, corrects for some of those criticisms, boosting the story’s diversity with a few minor character revisions and expanding the ending to allow a more complete redemption arc for its leading character. It also doubles down on the show’s youth appeal by building up some of the original content around the show’s younger characters – including a substantially expanded role for Evan’s overachieving schoolmate Alana (Amandla Stenberg) – and cutting some from around the adults. For the most part, these changes strengthen and deepen the narrative; likewise, the very nature of the cinematic medium gives it an obvious advantage in exploring the story’s underlying concern with the power of the internet over our cultural and social lives.
Yet despite these improvements, “Evan Hansen” on film still falls short of being excellent. It’s not because of weak direction; Chbosky has a gift for conveying the complex and conflicting emotions of teenage experience with nuance and insight, something that goes a long way toward keeping “Evan Hansen” from becoming trite. Nor is it the cast; the film’s talented ensemble of players is more than up to the challenge of jumping from realistic scene work into the full conceit of a musical number and finding just the right balance to make it work. In particular, the always-luminous Moore is pitch-perfect as Evan’s mom, as is Adams as her grieving counterpart; and Dever is unequivocally superb as Zoe, quietly providing the heartbreaking honesty necessary to make her character’s journey come clearly and authentically to life – something absolutely needed if we are to believe in her relationship with Evan.
And that brings us to the problem: Evan himself is a hard sell. On one hand, he is grappling with mental health issues, not to mention an absent father and an overextended mother, and therefore draws our sympathies; yet on the other, he deceives and manipulates people to gain the things he is missing in his life – the attention of his classmates, a girlfriend, a substitute family – and justifies it with the belief that he is benefitting a higher cause. Platt’s performance on Broadway helped make it work through the raw power of his emotion and his prowess as a singer.
But the world has changed in the years since “Evan Hansen” landed on Broadway. During a cultural crisis born (among other things) of the ease by which “alternative facts” can disrupt our lives, it’s grown more difficult to find such a character appealing, no matter how soulfully he warbles Pasek and Paul’s heart-tugging pop-flavored showtunes. And while Platt may deliver a faithful rendering of his acclaimed stage performance, next to the elegant self-assurance of the rest of the film’s cast he seems over-the-top, a bundle of performative tics and mannerisms that distract us from the reality of Evan’s struggles and make him come off as disingenuous.
As for the controversy around his age, it should be noted that all the film’s teen characters are played by actors in their 20s, a common practice in Hollywood movies. Still, in spite of the sometimes painfully obvious efforts made to “youthen” him for the camera, Platt is nevertheless noticeably older-looking than his co-stars, something that (for obvious reasons) is particularly troubling in his scenes with Dever, who is much more convincing as a 17-year old than he.
Still, it’s not the age problem alone that keeps “Evan Hansen” from winning us over. It’s the combination of all the artificiality he brings with him – which includes our knowledge that his father, Marc C. Platt, co-produced the film. It has the counter-productive result of tainting the sincerity of everything we see on the screen, even to the point of giving the movie’s nods to diversity and inclusion an unpleasant odor of tokenism, and it ensures that we won’t be quite as eager to bestow forgiveness on the title character as the story wants us to be.
That’s why it’s a disappointment that “Dear Evan Hansen” isn’t terrible. It might have been one of the great Hollywood debacles, a monumental flop to be revered by generations of audiences who loved to make fun of it. It could have been a camp classic.
Instead, it’s just another promising project sunk by Hollywood hubris, a mediocre misfire with a few good moments that never really had the chance at being more than that, but certainly could have been so much less.
That, at least, would have made it memorable.
Join Joel Kim Booster on ‘Fire Island’ this summer
Gay rom com features queer Asian cast
It would be an understandable mistake to see Joel Kim Booster on one of the two “Out Traveler” magazine covers he’s gracing this month and assume he was just another sexy fashion model, but the 34-year-old Korean-American comedian is not having a moment in the blazing sun of queer pop culture just because of his undeniable talent for rocking a Speedo.
He is actually in the middle of the publicity push for the upcoming film “Fire Island,” which he wrote and in which he co-stars with (among others) close friend Bowen Yang and comedy legend Margaret Cho, and which begins screening exclusively on the Hulu streaming service just in time for Pride month.
Directed by Andrew Ahn (“Spa Night”), it’s a movie that’s generating a lot of buzz, partly because it’s the first predominantly queer film to be backed by a major movie studio (Disney, through its Searchlight Pictures division). We’ve been burned too many times not to be skeptical about such a project, but anyone already familiar with Booster’s work will undoubtedly tell you it’s not likely to be another watered-down, safe-for-the-mainstream offering designed to check off boxes on the diversity agenda. Since he first made a splash with an appearance on “Conan” in 2016, he has gained a following among queer and straight audiences alike with his unapologetically gay, unabashedly sex-positive comedy, leading to what some might call a meteoric rise to the brink of superstardom through an acclaimed stand-up career, his roles on TV in shows like the short-lived sitcom “Sunnyside” (on which he was a regular), “Shrill,” and “The Week Of” (as well as his writing for shows like “Billy on the Street” and “The Other Two”), and his popular podcasts (“Urgent Care with Joel Kim Booster + Mitra Jouhari” and “The Joy Fuck Club”).
Now he’s poised to become a movie star with “Fire Island,” a gay romantic comedy set in the titular vacation retreat that dares not only to feature a cast made up entirely of queer characters, but doubles down by putting the focus on queer characters who also happen to be Asian. To top it all off, it gives Booster a chance to show off his literate side with a story – which concerns a group of gay best friends out for sexual adventure, and possibly even romance, on what might be their last trip to the iconic gay getaway – adapted from no less esteemed a literary source than Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice.”
The Blade was fortunate enough to chat with Booster in the middle of this very high-pressure month before his feature film debut, and our conversation was informed by the kind of erudite and compassionate intelligence that has marked the young comedian’s career from the start.
BLADE: In your comedy, you’ve drawn a lot of inspiration from being raised as a Korean adoptee by white American parents in a deeply Christian midwestern community. Does that experience figure into the movie, too?
BOOSTER: Of course! As a transnational adoptee, my entire life I’ve been fighting against this nagging feeling of not quite fitting in – and that’s whether I’m around white people, or Asian people, or even some gay people. It’s tough, and it’s been such a paramount part of my life to find people who make me feel seen and accepted and to keep them close, so it felt really important for the theme of chosen family to stay in the forefront when I was making this movie. As much as it’s a “rom com,” it’s also about friendship – about relationships with people who, like I say in the movie, “fill in the gaps.”
BLADE: How did you hit on using Jane Austen as a source?
BOOSTER: It was really a lucky accident. I brought “Pride and Prejudice” with me on the first trip Bowen and I ever took to Fire Island. I would be lying there on the beach reading it and thinking, “It’s amazing how the things she was writing about are so relevant to what we’re experiencing on this island right now.” It was kinda wild, and it started out as threat, a joke – I would keep saying, ‘I can’t wait to write an all-gay adaptation of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ set on Fire Island,’ and people would boo and throw things at me. But after that I would always bring an Austen book with me to read on the island, because it felt special to me. There was just something so prescient about what she wrote, and about her observations on class, especially reading it in this place where we had sort of created our own class system, as gay men.
BLADE: When did it stop being a joke?
BOOSTER: Actually, my agent suggested that I should write it, because I was in between projects. I just had a pilot that was passed on by Comedy Central, I was depressed, I had nothing to do – so I ended up writing it as a half-hour pilot script. But nobody wanted it until Quibi [the short-form entertainment platform that launched and folded in 2020 after failing to meet projected subscription levels]. Say what you will about them, but they really invested a lot of money and time into new and young voices, and they took a lot of chances. They took a chance on me, and when they folded I had this script that I could point to which I had written and developed with them. This movie was a tough pitch to sell on just a log line, but I had this finished project, this complicated piece of work to show people, that was much more intricate than I think “Gay ‘Pride and Prejudice’” would maybe lead people to believe.
BLADE: Your movie is just one of several big queer titles on deck for 2022, including Billy Eichner’s rom com, “Bros.” How do you feel about that?
BOOSTER: Honestly, it really takes some of the pressure off. When we get, like, one gay movie a year, a lot of attention and scrutiny gets put on that movie and it’s expected to be everything to everyone in our community. And our community is huge, and it’s diverse, and there are so many stories that aren’t being told. I’m so glad Billy’s movie is coming out as well, he was my first comedy boss, and I’m really happy that people in our community are going to have two big gay rom coms to choose from.
BLADE: We haven’t seen “Bros” yet, but we’ve seen “Fire Island.” There’s a review embargo [until May 23], but I think it’s safe to say nobody is going to boo or throw things at you. Do you feel any sense of competition about it?
BOOSTER: My hope is that people love both, but it’s nice that if somebody goes to see my movie and says, ‘That’s not for me, I don’t see myself there,’ then a couple months later they’ll see Billy’s and they’ll have another shot at it. And I hope both of our movies are successful enough that they create a million clones. I hope it’s just the beginning.
“Fire Island,” which also stars Conrad Ricamora (“How to Get Away With Murder”) and a host of other familiar queer performers, premieres on Hulu on June 3.
‘Everything Everywhere’ does the multiverse right
Quirky film boosted by Jamie Lee Curtis’s ‘feud’ with Marvel
Last weekend, the Marvel Studios blockbuster machine unleashed its latest piece of cinematic eye-and-brain candy, “Dr. Strange and the Multiverse of Madness,” in which the titular hero traverses multiple versions of reality to save the universe from chaos and destruction.
Marvel, of course, didn’t invent the concept of the “multiverse” – in fact, they’re not even the first ones to release a movie about it this year; another multiverse film beat “Dr. Strange” into theaters by nearly six weeks – and it’s been enjoying a slow, word-of-mouth-fueled juggernaut of box office success ever since.
That movie, a genre-bending indie production titled “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” caused a bemusing stir on social media last week, when Jamie Lee Curtis (one of its stars) launched a tongue-in-cheek feud with “Dr. Strange” in a string of Instagram posts. It was all in fun, but one couldn’t help recognizing a sense of authentic pride when she teased, among other things, that her film “out marvels any Marvel movie they put out there.”
Perspective is everything, of course, but she’s not wrong. While Marvel fans will undoubtedly find “Dr. Strange” a satisfying trip into the multiverse and back, the rest of us would do well to seek out “Everything Everywhere All at Once” while it’s still on the big screen – and yes, that even applies to people who couldn’t care less about any universe but this one.
Conceived, written and directed by Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (collectively known as “Daniels” since their early career directing music videos), it’s a fast-paced wild ride that begins in one of the most mundane realities imaginable – the life of a middle-aged Chinese-American immigrant named Evelyn (Michelle Yeoh), who operates a laundromat with her mild-mannered husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan), endures strained relationships with her elderly father Gong Gong (James Hong) and her lesbian Gen Z daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu), and faces a tax audit – conducted by a humorless and hostile IRS agent (Curtis) – which could bankrupt the family business. This stressful quotidian mix is suddenly disrupted when a visitor appears, claiming to be from another universe, and tells her that a powerful evil being has undertaken a sinister plot that threatens to destroy not just his universe and her universe, but all the universes. Further, he informs her that she is the only person in ANY universe who has a chance of defeating this malevolent force in battle. Needless to say, she is hesitant to believe him – but it’s not long before she is leaping from timeline to timeline as an unlikely inter-dimensional warrior on a mission to save existence itself from annihilation.
At the risk of making a spoiler-ish statement, that mission turns out to be as absurd as it is apocalyptic. The Daniels’ film – which had been baking in their heads since 2010 – has no desire to ply its audiences with high-tech wizard battles in outer space or any of the other tropes of the sci-fi adventures it simultaneously spoofs and salutes; instead, it draws on a long tradition of existentialist thinking – something that, for obvious reasons, goes hand-in-hand with stories about existing in a reality full of infinite possibilities that all lead to oblivion – to accentuate the ridiculous. One of the worlds we visit, for example, is populated by human beings who have hot dogs for fingers, and that’s just the most blatant of the many delicious absurdities the film serves up. It makes for a lot of laughs, but it nevertheless sets us to ponder the implications of infinite possibility we concoct within our own imaginations.
To that end, “Everything” balances its quirky, surrealist humor by showing us a few more plausible universes, as well. To gain the skills necessary to defeat her nemesis, Evelyn must visit other versions of her life; she experiences herself as a movie star in martial arts films, or a skilled hibachi chef, or a world-class opera singer, and visiting these realities drives home the point that one small decision – like choosing whether to marry someone or not – can divert our path toward a vastly different lifetime. We see the power of the past to shape our future, for better or for worse, through empowerment or regret, and the power in ourselves to change a multitude of worlds with a single choice. Inevitably, too, we see the nihilistic despair that comes of recognizing one’s insignificance in the face of a vast and seemingly uncaring universe; what’s the point of living in a world of infinite potential outcomes if none of those outcomes matter?
If that all sounds a little too philosophical for your tastes, don’t worry; Kwan and Scheinert pull off the rare feat of encompassing these speculative issues within a story that is not only relatable, but wildly entertaining – and a lot of it has to do with the cast of avengers they’ve assembled.
First and foremost is Yeoh, whose status as a martial arts screen icon is just one of the strengths she brings to the table; her performance is a career-topping triumph in which she commits to making the beleaguered, unremarkable Evelyn palpably and painfully human even when immersed in the most outrageous of circumstances, and in the process gives us the kick-ass heroine for the ages we never knew we needed. As her put-upon husband, Quan is an invaluable asset; the former child actor (who appeared in “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” and “The Goonies” before moving behind the camera for a career as a sought-after stunt coordinator) brings his own history to the mix, too, and brings us an entire array of Waymonds, all manifesting different flavors of his irresistible underdog charm. Hsu contains multitudes as Joy – no spoilers, but her troubled relationship with her mom is not limited to this universe – and screen veteran Hong is full of surprises as Gong Gong. Finally, Curtis uses the various iterations of her frumpy tax accountant to turn her supporting role into a scene-stealing audience favorite.
The fun these performers clearly have with their roles goes a long way toward keeping things light, no small accomplishment in a brainy cinematic excursion like this one. More importantly, they seem to fully understand and embrace what this madcap sci-fi comedy caper is really all about – and that makes all the difference, because “Everything Everywhere All at Once” may be an action-packed adventure dealing in the same epic conceptual scale as “Dr. Strange,” but it’s less concerned with titanic battles and cosmic catastrophes than it is with the very small, very ordinary concerns of everyday human life. Sure, it exploits the multiverse as a plot device to enable its imaginative and far-fetched flights of fancy, and it does so with relish, but it ultimately uses it to remind us – gently, and without laying it on too thick – that we have the power to change our reality with every choice we make.
The fact that it delivers that message in a story that puts Asian and queer characters front-and-center is just another great reason to call this disarmingly oddball movie the brightest gem of the season.
Well, that and the hot dog fingers.
Hulu’s joyful ‘Crush’
New film solidifies 2022’s status as banner year for queer representation
It’s only May, and already 2022 is shaping up to be one of the queerest years on record when it comes to film.
It’s certainly a breath of fresh air, particularly in a cultural environment marked by increased and aggressive anti-LGBTQ sentiment from the eternally bigoted social and religious conservatives of the extreme right, and while it’s impossible to ignore (and unwise to disregard) their rhetoric and their thinly veiled authoritarian attempts to legislate us out of existence, we have every right to take a moment to enjoy the fact that we live in a time when queer lives and queer stories can grace our screens without portraying us as victims, villains, freaks, degenerates or worse.
What’s even more gratifying – and definitely a step in the right direction – is the increased diversity on display in these queer stories. Where once most of us had to settle for mostly seeing gay men (usually white) as stand-ins for our entire community, we’re now getting a growing number of movies that place the focus on the other colors of our rainbow, and it’s a welcome reminder of the beauty that exists in acknowledging and accepting the experiences of everyone.
Consider, for instance, “Crush,” Hulu’s newest entry to the LGBTQ teen romance genre, which started streaming on April 29, and puts a lesbian love story in the spotlight.
It’s true that, in an era before LGBTQ characters could be brought to the screen with the freedom and genuine lived experience that makes today’s queer movies feel so authentic, women in love – or at least, in lust – with each other were often seen as “acceptable” in mainstream cinema. While we had lesbian stories, however, those stories were almost always told by men, and straight men at that, leaving us with romanticized (or more accurately, fetishized) depictions that were hopelessly tainted by the male gaze. While movies like “Basic Instinct” and “Bound” may have been successful films that brought queer women into the public eye, they can scarcely be said to have presented a positive or even relatable image in which any real-life lesbian viewers might be able to recognize themselves.
Nothing could be further than the case in “Crush,” a film with the advantage of having actual women building it from the ground up. Directed by Sammi Cohen (making her feature directorial debut) from a screenplay by Kirsten King and Casey Rackham, it’s the story of Paige (Rowan Blanchard), a freshly out high-schooler with a passion and a talent for art. Though she has no interest in sports, she impulsively joins the school’s track team in a bid to get closer to the beautiful and popular Gabriela (Isabella Ferreira), the team’s co-captain, on whom she has harbored a longtime crush. She knows nothing about track, however, so the team’s coach (Aasif Mandvi) assigns her to Gabriela’s twin sister AJ ( Auliʻi Cravalho) for training. As their friendship grows, she begins to develop unexpected feelings – a situation complicated by the threat of potential suspension over mistaken accusations of vandalism due to a wave of anonymous graffiti art that has been appearing all over the campus. Desperate to find the real culprit, Paige enlists AJ to help solve the mystery and clear her name, and soon finds herself facing a dilemma over which of the two sisters she really wants to pursue.
Written by King and Rackham with the deliberate intention of capturing the joy of growing up queer rather than usual turmoil and trauma that accompanies so many LGBTQ coming-of age stories, the pair were inspired by their own life experiences. Cohen, drawn to the project for similar reasons, directs the film with an eye toward bringing that all-too-rare positivity to the screen, and the result is an upbeat, infectiously happy tale of young love that should, as a perhaps ironic consequence, be eminently relatable to a mainstream (i.e. non-queer) audience, too. Yes, there is some drama – choosing between multiple crushes is hard, after all, and the threat of punishment over something you didn’t do is enough to turn any teenage life into a Hitchcockian suspense – but none of it ever seems to dim the brightness that shines straight from the movie’s proud heart.
Equal share of credit for that irresistible optimism is due to the authenticity of a young cast that seems, above all, to be having a lot of fun; Blanchard and Cravalho establish a charming chemistry from their first moments together onscreen, which keeps us rooting for the inevitable outcome even when they can’t yet see it, and Ferreira plays against the stereotype of the ”popular girl” to create a gracious, genuinely lovely persona that makes it easy to see why anyone would have a crush on her. Tyler Alvarez and Teala Dunn, as a couple who are Paige’s best friends and sidekicks, are engaging and well-drawn enough to keep them from being simply a token “straight couple,” and Megan Mullally proves once more why she’s not only a queer icon but a national treasure as Paige’s libido-driven mother, ravenously pursuing her daughter’s track coach in an amusing reversal of pursuer/pursued gender roles that will keep the grown-ups chuckling, too.
That’s fortunate, because “Crush,” like many comedies aimed at teens, sidelines its adult characters and relies on them mostly for comic relief, and while younger viewers may be engrossed, the movie admittedly eschews sophisticated nuance in exploring the emotional ups and downs of its romantic triangle. Likewise, in choosing to set this lesbian love story in an environment where queerness is normalized and acceptance is seemingly universal, it provides a welcome template for the world we want to see (not to mention the invaluable contribution of giving young LGBTQ+ people the positive representation they so desperately need), the non-existence of homophobia it presents will inevitably be a bit beyond the capacity of some adult viewers to willingly suspend their disbelief.
“Crush” is a movie that is determined to MAKE us believe, however, and to show us what life could be like for our children if we did. Thanks to its unmistakable sincerity and unshakable good will, it goes a long way toward succeeding.
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