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Top Stories This Week in the Chronicle.
January 26, 2007

Evenings Out

Why all the buzz about Dreamgirls?

It’s not a great film, but its Oscar machine is

Somewhere deep down, I must admit, I have always had a burning desire to be one in a million. My dream may finally have come true. In fact, I may even be one in tens of millions.

I am one of a very select few who thinks that the film Dreamgirls is a schmaltzy, overblown exercise in mediocrity at its best.

The movie’s buzz has been humongous. It had teasers playing in multiplexes as early as fall 2005. In the past few months the hoopla has been deafening, from the studio and critics alike.

Dreamgirls seems unstoppable as it maneuvers its way into this year’s Oscar heap. Jennifer Hudson and Eddie Murphy are certain to walk home with the golden boy himself and the film got six other nominations. At last week’s Golden Globes, Hudson and Murphy won the coveted supporting performer trophies.

To be honest, I have been waiting to see the film since it was announced that the 1981 Broadway phenomenon, based loosely on the story of Diana Ross and the Supremes, was being made into a film with an all-star cast helmed by out writer and director Bill Condon (Chicago, Kinsey, Gods and Monsters).

Finally watching the film was a huge disappointment. Honestly, the buzz has been so loud, the hype so majestic that very few films could match it. Yet, I can’t understand what all the critical praise and genuflection is all about.

Dreamgirls follows the turbulent and triumphant lives of three African American women, Deena Jones, Effie White and Lorrell Robinson, who want to make it great in the American musical world of the 1960s. They are initially tapped to be backup singers for James “Thunder” Early, but are eventually marketed as a trio girl band. With this, Effie’s stronger voice is sacrificed for Deena’s hotter looks when the latter is made the lead singer. Their manager Curtis Taylor and Effie’s songwriter brother C.C. are the two men behind the women.

Effie’s diva behavior, especially when she is passed over for lead singer, causes a downward spiral and she is replaced by a newcomer. Her solo career goes nowhere at first and even when she manages to cut a good single, Taylor steals it and turns it into a hit for the trio.

The film has plenty of drama with miles of ups and downs and twists and turns to boot. Yet, nothing seems to connect completely. For all its emotional potential, the film rings hollow and I didn’t end up caring much for any of the characters.

It seems overly manipulative, and it was obviously trolling for Oscars as it was being made.

One of the things that Dreamgirls is being praised for are the snippets of real-life civil rights issues in the fictional tale, but they seemed gratuitous and condescending. It’s a fluff piece and trying to gussy it up as some political manifesto or social commentary is silly. If you’re going to make bubblegum, for crying out loud, don’t try to give it caviar flavoring to make it something it’s not.

To be sure, this is not a bad film. It’s just not as great as the rest would have you believe. Dreamgirls has been a hot favorite with gay audiences since the Broadway version and the film is no exception. Go to any of the Union Stations on Sunday showtune night and you are sure to see Jennifer Holliday’s heartrending version of “I’m Not Going.”

Part of the appeal of the piece to gay audiences, other than that gay men are drawn to Broadway like Southerners to nascar, is that there is an inherent drag quality to the three leading ladies of the story.

They are gussied up in wigs and sequins playing roles to attain a dream. Moreover, gay folk identify with the outsider status of these women, particularly Effie.

Jennifer Hudson is strong as Effie. The American Idol alumnus has a powerful voice and the overwrought songs serve her well. Yet without the power of the music, her performance is good but not in the same class as Adrianna Barazza or Rinko Kikuchi in Babel, Emily Blunt in The Devil Wears Prada or Frances de la Tour in The History Boys. She is an Oscar certainty, but mostly because the buzz around her has made it inevitable.

The same can be said about Eddie Murphy who is more deserving of the Oscar, but even here there have been better supporting actor performances this year: Noah Emmrich and Jackie Earle Haley in Little Children, Steve Carell, Alan Arkin and Paul Dano in Little Miss Sunshine, Jack Nicholson and Mark Wahlberg in The Departed and Samuel Barnett and Steven Campbell Moore in The History Boys. Yet, Murphy’s performance is the showiest and this year’s award will be more of a lifetime achievement compensation than a true evaluation of who was the best this year.

No one has looked as good on screen in a long, long time as Beyonce Knowles does here. She’s gorgeous and her acting is competent. But a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress? Give me a break! As the faux Diana Ross, Knowles works the sexiness quotient to its max, but overall it is a tepid performance and the awards buzz around her leaves one with very little faith in the awards system.

Jamie Foxx is the one who steals that show and has the best performance of the film. But his quiet menace is no match for the over-the-top histrionics of the others. He goes unnoticed and underappreciated. If anyone deserves a nomination here it is him.

Condon was perhaps the right man to tell this story. His last two directorial outings were classy films with Oscar potential. Gods and Monsters was a beautiful story about and older gay man struggling with art and life. Kinsey boldly told the story of the man who revolutionized modern sexuality.

In both those films, far stronger than Dreamgirls, Condon seemed focused on simplicity and truth. Here he seems to have lost his way, blinded by enough sequins to make Liberace blush with modesty.

Condon’s script and directing seem unfocused and overly grandiose. The human elements get lost. The characters, because the film tries to focus on so many, don’t get completely developed leaving one cold to them all.

The multiple ways in which songs are used in the film also don’t work cohesively. Sometimes they are as part of concert performances and other times the characters sing in interaction with one another. Condon hasn’t managed to meld these seamlessly and it seems like we are watching a stage play from multiple angles, but never a movie in its own right.

Sad to say, this reviewer thinks that Dreamgirls’ only genius is the buzz machinery that surrounds it. Like it or not, the one who stands on the treetop (in sequins galore to boot) and warbles the loudest is likely to get the attention, deserved or not.

If the Academy gave an Oscar for Best Publicity Campaign Despite Mediocre Filmmaking, I’d be the first one to give Dreamgirls its due.

 

 

 

 

 

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