starring Jamie Foxx, Beyoncé Knowles, Eddie Murphy, Danny Glover
screenplay by Bill Condon, based on the play by Tom Eyen
directed by Bill Condon
by Walter Chaw Hailed as one of the more innovatively-staged musicals in the modern pantheon of such entertainments, Dreamgirls, transferred to the big screen, is nothing special in the way of something trying way too hard to dazzle. It's the plain girl swathed in a gallon of makeup: there's so much misdirection that you actually try harder to dig up a foundation that can't bear the scrutiny. Said base for Dreamgirls is of course one of the most successful Broadway musicals (6 Tonys, 1,522 performances) from an era that counts "Les Miz", Andrew Lloyd Weber's dreadful operettas, and, what, "A Chorus Line"(?), among its chief rivals. You want to attribute its Broadway success to its spinning stage, choreographed and motorized $3.2M tower set, and coy deconstruction of bitch-goddess Diana Ross and her Supremes, but it's hard not to wonder if it merely benefits from the relative quality of its competition. Then again, its success is likely the by-product of a fairly consistent mass appetite for cookie-cutter musical biopics, which have been self-satirized to near-total inconsequence first by VH1's "Behind the Music" series, then to quickly-diminishing returns at the multiplex by Ray and Walk the Line.
Diana Ross, called Deena (Beyoncé Knowles) in this incarnation, falls in love with Berry Gordy Jr. (or "Curtis" (Jamie Foxx)) before or after Curtis installs her as the lead singer of an up-and-coming Motown trio. This miffs Etta James-ian belter Effie (Hudson), who, having previously been the one splitting time between Curtis's bed and lead on stage, excuses herself from the "Dreams" girl megagroup on the eve of its becoming the biggest musical attraction in the country. Rags-to-riches to disappointments and divorce are graphed along a Darwin chart of bad wigs as Dreamgirls also spares a moment or two for the sad saga of Jimmy "Thunder" Early (Eddie Murphy), a composite of several soul singers that reduces suspiciously to the reanimated corpse of Murphy's SNL "James Brown Celebrity Hot Tub" goof. His whole performance is ridiculous, with the pathos of his "black" singing going out of vogue in the white-appealing Motown not only covered more effectively by Effie's third-act rise from the ashes, but also made hollow by Murphy's star-persona and stale, past-date perspiration. (You inevitably catch yourself anticipating a cameo from Joe Piscopo's Frank Sinatra.) It's a comeback in the sense that anything Murphy is in now that doesn't involve a lot of children and fart gags is an improvement, but I was mostly left with nostalgia over how innovative a performer he actually used to be.
Dreamgirls suffers, too, from a form of schizophrenia in trying to balance the character flaws and career ambitions of Deena, Curtis, and Effie. Deena's the idealist who wants to be an artist, although hers is strictly a cross-racial appeal comprising equal parts "unthreatening" and bland; pragmatic Curtis, as the one character in the piece who understands how this world works (greasing palms in payola scams and removing the "too black" Effie as the Dreams' face), is tunnel-visioned when it comes to nurturing human connections; and Effie is the ego-deficient blusterer whose lack of substance is interesting to discover as a flaw in an abrasive, gaudy person and not so much in an abrasive, gaudy film. If Dreamgirls were more aligned with Jimmy Early's unruly, chaotic dedication to himself and his unpopular vision--even though it may have consigned Dreamgirls and its dreams of mainstream acceptance to the same ghetto as the super-charged, admirably-uncompromised Idlewild--there might be something more to celebrate here than Hudson's full guns a-blazing screaming. Not surprisingly, as the only star of the film not already a star, she stands out in a story about non-stars who don't know they're going to be famous and, worse, are saddled with the responsibility of being influential. She's the only one who isn't recognizable as a single name, without that gleam in her eye that says she knows more than she should, and whose ego isn't already tied to the immense emptiness of celebrity.
The whole of Dreamgirls is a product of lowered expectations and hopeful qualifications. The songs for the most part aren't that catchy (but they're pretty good for that period of musical theatre), the book is corny and canned (but not compared to...), and the performances are sweaty but remote (but Beyoncé, Eddie, and Hudson do unexpected work). Out of time, irrelevant, and orphaned without the intimacy of the stage (an avalanche of hype notwithstanding), Dreamgirls is just another overlong and expensive end-of-year mediocrity that may benefit from that overcompensating paternal propensity to over-tip the help. The picture has already picked out a dress and composed an acceptance speech, I think, because it's already proved itself acceptable to folks capable of paying for tickets on the Great White Way (generally, peers of the folks with an Academy membership) and will be the kind of minority picture that, like The Pursuit of Happyness, reassures the ruling class that minorities succeed only when they make money for or entertain us. (Preferably both.) This year's Brokeback Mountain in a lot of ways, Dreamgirls is the movie over which it's impolite not to fawn. Originally published: December 20, 2006.