Thursday, December 28, 2006

One Night Only: Dreamgirls

Dreamgirls, anointed the Oscar frontrunner for the year the second it was greenlit, has become the favorite booster project of Oscar prognosticators like Tom O'Neil, who bolsters his reputation more the further ahead he makes the right call, and the favorite whipping boy of folks like the people at the Onion AV Club, who believe (rightly so, in many cases) that the desire to predict the Oscars is poisoning serious film criticism, just as the box office obsession did years ago.

Truth be told, it's neither as good nor as bad as either side would have you believe. If it wins Best Picture, it almost certainly won't be because it was the best film of the year (though, honestly, how often does THAT happen) but because it's the sort of well-executed middlebrow entertainment Hollywood likes to think of itself as supporting, even as it increasingly doesn't make films like this.

The biggest problems with Dreamgirls are problems with the stage show. Anyone who's read the play (or seen it staged) knows that it has huge second act problems. This isn't uncommon in the world of musicals, where Act One often ends on a high note that Act Two struggles to top in vain (the structure of a musical often necessarily puts the climax at the end of the first act, making the second act, which often drags on for an hour or so, structurally unnecessary). The film musicals that manage to subvert this problem rethink their act structure for the screen, where we generally expect a very different sort of rise and fall in the story. Even something like Sound of Music punches up what should be the second act with a cat-and-mouse game with Nazis (largely an invention of the great, unheralded-in-his-time screenwriter Ernest Lehman).

Dreamgirls has a bigger problem, though. As a barely disguised biography of The Supremes, it needs to shunt aside Effie (Jennifer Hudson) for Deena (Beyonce Knowles), a sort of symbolic stand-in for the way the "black sound" was sanitized to tackle the pop music charts where the real money was (and, of course, a more direct stand-in for the way The Supremes replaced original lead singer Florence Ballard with Diana Ross). By shifting its focus from one protagonist to another, the story asks a lot of the audience, which has grown attached to Effie and sees Deena as an interloper. Theoretically, the protagonist of the story is the group itself, but that, in itself, is an unwieldy conceit to ask an audience to latch on to.

Aside from that structural issue, there's a lot to like in Dreamgirls. It feels, at times, as if it's directed within an inch of its life by Bill Condon (who speeds up the first hour to a point where it seems like it's going to melt down, then slows the second hour, which is basically one long deflation from the first hour, a little too much). Condon does some of the quick cutting that was so common in Moulin Rouge and Chicago, but he doesn't inflict this sort of editing on all of the musical sequences. He's unafraid of holding long takes of his actors singing, especially in "And I Am Telling You I Am Not Going" (a standout number for Hudson) and "Listen" (a pivotal number -- if not quite a standout one -- for Knowles). Other musicals this decade have seemed tentative about letting their actors emote while singing, but Dreamgirls isn't, and most of that is to Condon's credit. He relies on montages a little too much, but he drags strong performances out of all of his actors (although Knowles and Jamie Foxx's characters are horribly underwritten and the actors suffer as a result), especially Hudson and Eddie Murphy, as Jimmy "Thunder" Early, something of a James Brown analogue.

The technical work in the movie is superior. The sets and costumes are gorgeous, and the sound mix is well-night perfect. Even that editing, when it's not zagging all over the place, is exemplary when it finds a good rhythm for a musical sequence and sticks with it.

By far the reason to see Dreamgirls, though, is for Hudson. It's unclear whether she can do anything after this, but she's got an amazing voice and knows how to sell the underlying emotions of a song, even the silly ones (and there are quite a few in this musical). Her work when she's not singing is solid, but her singing is reason enough to see the movie -- if just the "And I Am Telling You ..." sequence was on the Oscar ballot rather than the whole movie, I just might vote for it.

Of course there's a lot of dumb stuff in Dreamgirls (the girls leave a recording session and walk right out into a race riot, for one), and the music isn't really Motown -- it's more Motown as reimagined by white people (and the Pat Boone takeoff in the first few reels that seems to acknowledge this is a riot). But there's plenty there to enjoy as well. If you're just looking for solid, mainstream Hollywood entertainment, Dreamgirls isn't your worst option.

No comments: