Director: Bill Condon
Cast: Jamie Foxx, Beyoncé Knowles, Jennifer Hudson, Eddie Murphy, Anika Noni Rose, Keith Robinson, Danny Glover
MPAA Rating: (for language, some sexuality and drug content)
Running Time: 2:11
Release Date: 12/15/06 (NY/LA/SF); 12/25/06 (wide)
Review by Mark Dujsik
The resurgence of the movie musical is a good thing, even if we have to put up with ones that are all polish and misguided intentions. Dreamgirls is one of those theatrically-adapted cinematic musicals, with its mind stuck in the limbo of never discovering how theatrical and how cinematic it should be. There is no formula, of course, but when characters break into song for no reason, there should be something acknowledging that, yes, this is artifice. Even though this kind of faux pas frustrates me to no end, writer/director Bill Condon's stylistic missteps are mere trifles compared to the artificial nature of the material itself. Considering this is a genre in which people randomly break into song, that is saying quite a lot. There are a few on-target jabs at the music industry, but in the end, Dreamgirls is blind and empty glorification of that most disingenuous of businesses masquerading as art (although the argument could be made that they don't even try to fake the art function anymore). Add to these a very rough sense of storytelling, and there's really not much going for the movie with the exception of a few strong performances and some obvious but still enjoyable attempts at bringing elements of the stage to film.
The Dreamettes are a trio of female vocalists who grew up together in Detroit and are about to perform in a talent competition. Effie White (Jennifer Hudson) sings lead, while Deena Jones (a bland Beyoncé Knowles) and Lorrell Robinson (Anika Noni Rose) sing backup. Even though they're late to start, Curtis Taylor Jr. (an effectively slimy Jamie Foxx), a semi-famous manager, helps them get a slot and subsequently pays off a judge to keep them from winning. He convinces Marty Madison (Danny Glover, clearly knowing he's in a thankless role), the manager of James "Thunder" Early (an energetic Eddie Murphy), to use the trio as backup singers for Early's upcoming tour. His former singers left because of the married Early's womanizing ways. After some convincing, Effie agrees with the others to join the tour. The road brings love affairs, as Lorrell becomes involved with Early and Effie with Curtis, but it also brings out Curtis' ambition. He starts a new record company, breaks the women apart from Early, renames the group The Dreams, and tries to make them and Early cross-over successes with the help of Effie's brother and songwriter C.C. (Keith Robinson). Egos flare as Deena takes over as the lead singer, Effie is replaced, and the group rises to stardom.
The movie is on target in its first act, showing the girls' rise to a professional music career. For one, the songs are actually performed on a stage in front of people. The movie is even rolling as Deena becomes the lead singer, leading Curtis to comment to her mother that Deena has a certain "quality." Her mother thinks he makes her sound like a product; he likes that description better. That is the movie's single, most honest moment—a spot-on commentary of the music industry summed up in three lines of dialogue. Soon after, though, the movie gets messy. Suddenly, characters are singing while they're not performing. Effie leaves the group in what is the only nervous breakdown set to song that I can presently recall. It's a testament to Jennifer Hudson's potential as an actress that she gives the scene an emotional core despite its awkwardness. We had a hint that something like this would happen when Curtis and his crew start singing while trying to get their records played on the radio through underhanded dealings. How the movie goes from that relatively harmless moment to characters singing about family to each other while the camera spins around in a fruitless attempt to make it more visually exciting is a mystery.
If that weren't enough, the movie toys with its characters and their relationships for cheap melodramatic effect. Just as Effie leaves, the movie flash-forwards, and out of nowhere, Curtis and Deena are married. On top of that adjustment, we're expected to accept their years-long marital suffering. Condon doesn't care about these characters; they are mere playthings for the dramatics. By the end of the movie, everybody is dumping everybody. Curtis drops Early, C.C. leaves, Lorrell ditches Early, and the mortal coil abandons one character. It's too much for too little effect. It's a good thing one of the final songs tells the audience what they should be feeling, because Condon fails to connect to any of the characters. The songs, for the most part, are forgettable imitations of the genre to which they pay homage, but Condon stages the actual performance pieces effectively. He also gives the movie a polished, sometimes theatrical look. Take a scene in which the lights literally go down on Curtis as he stands despondent. It's an obvious gag, but I'm a sucker for those things. The script has some successful jokes about the business, including a knock-off of The Jackson 5 and a dorky white kid who steals one of Early's songs before it crosses over, but the reality of a segregated musical scene is downplayed to the point it becomes mere background.
Then again, anything that doesn't involve high dramatics seems relegated to the background. It's loud, with lots of pretty colors, but there's nothing holding back the melodrama or making it emotionally relevant. Dreamgirls is a particularly piece of lazy storytelling within a genre that is famous, to paraphrase Shakespeare, for having lots of noise and little significance.
Copyright © 2006 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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