Wednesday, December 27, 2006

And I Am Telling You This Movie is Worth More than That Song


directed by Bill Condon
starring Jamie Foxx, Beyoncé Knowles, Jennifer Hudson, Anika Noni Rose, Eddie Murphy, Danny Glover

Showy, superficial, but not, as its detractors would have it, soulless, “Dreamgirls” is a glamour production you’re better off taking on its own terms. You could throw a dart at any point in the movie and more than likely hit a flaw, if not a legion of them, but why bother? There’s a lot to enjoy in this brisk, glossy star vehicle, and the sheer entertainment value it offers is well worth a small dose of critical indulgence.

Adapted from the Broadway musical that made waves in the early ’80s, “Dreamgirls” tracks the rise of a fictional Motown-era R&B female trio famously (if loosely) based on Diana Ross and the Supremes. Originally called the Dreamettes, Detroit natives Effie White (Jennifer Hudson), Deena Jones (Beyoncé Knowles), and Lorrell Robinson (Anika Noni Rose) are spotted at a local talent contest by smooth-talking Curtis Taylor, Jr. (Jamie Foxx), a Cadillac dealer-turned-impresario, and signed to sing backup for soul singer James “Thunder” Early (Eddie Murphy). Curtis soon turns the Dreamettes into the Dreams, and the Dreams into stars, but at the requisite heavy price: lead singer Effie, the strongest voice and personality of the group, is demoted in favor of Deena, who in addition to being slimmer, prettier, and more docile than the tempestuous Effie, also (so the subtext implies, and there’s apparently some basis for it in the history of the Supremes) sounds lighter and whiter—and therefore, in Curtis’s estimation, more likely to cross over successfully into mainstream pop.

Not surprisingly, Effie doesn’t take kindly to having to play second fiddle, and takes even less kindly to being supplanted by Deena as Curtis’s lover. Her growing jealousy and insubordination eventually result in her ejection from the group and Curtis’s life, though not, thankfully, from the narrative. She survives heartbreak and keeps fighting to be heard, even as Deena, Curtis et al. duly discover fame isn’t everything. And yes, Effie does achieve vindication—unlike her real-life counterpart, who died in poverty and obscurity—even as Curtis, the primary villain in this version of the story, receives his long-overdue comeuppance. This is, after all, Broadway filtered through Hollywood. Still, knowing these tried-and-true arcs in advance should be no bar to watching them unfold in all their soap-operatic glory.

Not that the movie, as noted earlier, doesn’t have its problems. Some are carried over from the stage, some not. The music, overall, is disappointingly bland, especially when compared to the real music of the era it’s supposed to evoke: rather ironic, really, for a story that offers more than a passing commentary on the appropriation and dilution of black music by the white establishment. And the script seems to have been edited too heavily, as it rushes the pace at critical junctures, often at the expense of meaningful contextualization or character development. Indeed, some of the characters, as written, make little sense at all—for example, Effie’s brother and the Dreams’ songwriter, C.C. White. (Keith Robinson, though, is appealing in the role.) Others, such as the girl who steps in to replace Effie (played by the lovely Sharon Leal), are so barely there we never get any sense of where they came from or what makes them tick. It’s a tribute to veteran actors like Rose, as the group’s ingénue, and Danny Glover, as James Early’s original manager and a helping hand to Effie in her time of need, that they make their underwritten parts stand out as much as they do.

And in the end, it’s the depth of the performances that anchor the film and transcend the inadequacies of the material. “Dreamgirls” is that rare movie that’s getting more traction from its supporting performers than its ostensible leads, no doubt because at least one of its “supporting” characters is the real heart of the story. The name that seems to be on everyone’s lips, if not at the top of the marquee, is Jennifer Hudson, who lost season 3 of “American Idol” but went on to beat that year’s winner, Fantasia Barrino, for the role of Effie and win the hosannas of critics and audiences everywhere. Does she live up to the hype? Yes, just, though not for the moment that everyone else is raving about—her no-holds-barred delivery of “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” Effie’s crie de coeur when she learns Curtis is giving her the boot. I know I’m in the minority here, but I dislike this song intensely and found this scene incredibly painful to watch. I think most commentators—with the notable exception of Armond White, who with typical acerbity dubbed it “The Stalker’s Anthem”—have either mischaracterized the song or willfully misunderstood it. Have they listened to the lyrics? It’s not a song of defiance, it’s a song of desperation. An impotent plea of unrequited love to a patently undeserving recipient, it marks the nadir of humiliation for a woman who ultimately proves to be a lot stronger than the lyrics suggest. Far more moving and effective, in my opinion, is a song that comes later on: “I Am Changing,” in which a chastened Effie accepts responsibility for her own fate and lets go of her diva-like ways.

Close behind Hudson for acting honors is Murphy, who slips easily into his James Brown-ish role; perhaps too easily, as he occasionally verges on the parodic territory he mined back in his SNL days. Yet he really comes into his own as crooning, hip-swivelling Early on stage, and evokes genuine pathos as an artist creatively stifled and ultimately abandoned by a manager who couldn’t quite convert him into crossover material. By contrast, Foxx may actually be the weakest link in the cast, as he doesn’t seem altogether comfortable in the role of a cold-blooded cad. As for Beyoncé, who plays Trilby to his Svengali, I find it somewhat curious that the reviews have been as disproportionately dismissive of her performance as they are laudatory of Hudson’s; again, reflecting the inherent power of the Effie/Hudson story, and, I suspect, an unconscious tendency on the critics’ part to draw parallels between the Deena/Diana Ross story and Beyoncé’s own musical career.

Sure, Hudson wrings our sympathies in a way that Beyoncé never does, but then she has the advantage of having a full-blooded, three-dimensional character (arguably the only one in the entire script) all ready-made for her. Beyoncé does the best she can with an underdeveloped part, as Deena is made out to be considerably more passive than Diana Ross ever was. And just as you’re wondering if this angel-faced doll will ever grow a spine or get a clue, she busts out with the one true show-stopper of the movie—“Listen,” a song that wasn’t in the original musical, but expresses everything all the Dreams should have said collectively to Curtis—and delivers it with such force and conviction that you forget how colorless a character Deena was before. At worst, “Listen” underscores that Beyoncé’s real talent as a performer lies in the musical realm. At best, it embodies the spirit of “Dreamgirls” as an anthem to the power of music as an expression of human drama at its most primal and undistilled. Either way, it’s reason enough to stand up and applaud, just as if you were in the theater. Because, in more senses than one, you are.


Also saw:


directed by Steven Soderbergh
starring George Clooney, Cate Blanchett, Tobey Maguire, Beau Bridges, others
based on the novel by Joseph Kanon

An interesting, slightly underrated experiment by an interesting, slightly overrated director. Actually, I like Soderbergh quite a lot, but as a director he’s always seemed to me to be more style than substance, and “The Good German” only confirms that impression. The funny thing is this time the critics seem to be taking him to task as much for matters of style as for matters of substance. Based on a novel set in post-WWII Berlin, the film was shot simulating the techniques of a 1940s black and white studio picture, and though I’ve read some quibbling about lighting, contrasts and the like, to the untrained eye it’s a perfectly credible imitation—apart from the deliberately jarring effect of some naughty bits that you’d never have seen in “Citizen Kane,” and the appearance of modern faces like Clooney’s and Maguire’s that you also probably wouldn’t have seen in the Hollywood productions of that era. (Something about the expression rather than the features, I think.) Blanchett, on the other hand, looks like she belongs to the period, from the angle of her cheekbones and tilt of her chin down to the slightly dubious German accent. Clooney plays an American journalist, Jake Geismer, who ran a news bureau in Berlin in the 1930s and returns there after the war to cover the Potsdam conference; Blanchett appears as his old flame, Lena, a woman with a past who wants desperately to get out of Berlin, and Maguire as the American soldier who now calls her his girlfriend even as he offers to pimp her out. Jake, in trying to help Lena, quickly gets entangled in the mesh of mysteries surrounding her—mysteries the movie makes rather a muddle of, though at least it had the effect of making me want to read the book.

In any case it’s the atmosphere, more than the plot, that will hold your attention. Visually “The Good German” pays the most obvious homage to “Casablanca,” particularly in the last scene (it’s only the most ironic of echoes, however). In overall style and spirit, however, it seems to be striving for something much closer to that classic study in postwar disillusionment, “The Third Man,” as well as shades of several American noir films. As a tribute to those movies, it’s intriguing and watchable. On its own merits, it doesn’t really work, because it fails to translate its narrative convolutions into genuine emotional insight into any of its characters, and only glosses over the larger moral and political implications of the historical backdrop. Still, there’s something to be said for the sheer pleasure of observing the work of a director who clearly knows his classics. As always, Soderbergh gets an “A” for style. Only a B, however, for the movie as a whole.