Dreamgirls is being heralded all over the place as the smash hit movie of the year and the best of the recent movie musical revival. While I certainly agree that Dreamgirls sparkles, it is not without its flaws, and some of them are simply too big to be ignored.
The Dreamgirls story is one we've seen before. That's not to say that it is not worth telling -- its a compelling tale, and the simple fact that we keep coming back to it on stage, screen and film is testament to the story's power to move us. But, as I said, it is a familiar one: in the early 1960s, a talented but completely inexperienced African-American girl group (a la the Supremes) is given a shot thanks to the efforts of a young but savvy promoter and the benevolence of an established pseudo-celebrity. Eventually, the girls' fame eclipses that of their celebrity benefactor, they have a falling-out, friendships are tested, the price of fame is explored, someone develops a drug problem, and everyone realizes what in life is really important -- basically, the structure of every episode of Behind the Music, but with much grander production values.
Writer and director Bill Condon (who wrote the screenplay for Chicago) does an admirable job of taking another flawed musical beyond its stage limitations and creating an enjoyable film. But, ultimately, Dreamgirls' power, and its faults, lie in the performers who he (and the studio) have chosen to tell the story. Eddie Murphy, as the soul singer who struggles against his own identity in an attempt to rise to true fame, is outright amazing. In the years since 48 Hours and Beverly Hills Cop, I'd forgotten why Murphy was such a star -- he's just a damn good, extremely charismatic, actor. And, he can sing his ass off. His Earl "Thunder" Early deserves a Best Supporting Actor nomination (though perhaps not a win), and I think he'll get it. Anika Noni Rose is really delightful as the "third" Dreamgirl -- the one who's story is least integral to the plot (there's gotta be one), but who provides a constant reminder of who the girls once were. She's charming, compelling when she needs to be, and she, too, can sing her ass off. The rest of the supporting cast (including Danny Glover, Keith Robinson and Sharon Leal provide and solid and occasionally stunning foundation to the film.
And then there's Jamie Foxx, Beyonce Knowles and Jennifer Hudson. Hudson, who was an American Idol contestant a few years back, can sing like nobody's business: she has unbelievably powerful and simultaneously emotionally colorful voice, giving her an uncanny ability to move from the tender to the bombastic without missing a beat. Her "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going," the stage musical's first act closing number, is simply amazing, and the cynical audience of actors with whom I was watching the film (I saw Dreamgirls a week or so ago at a SAG screening) actually applauded after she was done. But, unfortunately, her acting is hit and miss throughout the film. This is Hudson's first movie, and it shows -- when she's singing, she's amazing, but her sometimes tentative, often unfocused acting falls short of the "Best Actress" hype that's been swirling around her. To her credit, she does a fine job for a first-timer, and to Condon's credit, he works with her strengths, and shies away from putting too much of the film's weight on her.
Unfortunately, while that's good for Hudson and her performance, that's ultimately bad for the film. In the play, Effie (the role played by Hudson) is more or less the lead -- it's her character whose journey is most complete, whose flaws put her career (and life, to a certain extent) in jeopardy, and who manages, by the end, to claw her way back, if not to the top, then to a place of relative comfort. But, in the film, Effie is one of three competing leads. The result is a unfortunately muddled second half, where Foxx's smug posing (he's as awful in this film as he's ever been -- I normally like Foxx on screen, but he's barely making an effort here) and Beyonce's competent but uninspiring acting skills (and voice which, while sweet and extremely skilled, cannot match Hudson's) struggle to fill a scattered storyline which eclipses (in size, if not power) Hudson's much more compelling (and coherent) one. The problem reeks of studio interference; some executive or agent somewhere saying, "wait a minute -- why don't Beyonce and Foxx, our marquee mega-stars, have more screen time?" That might not actually be the case, but it sure feels like it. Regardless of the cause, Dreamgirls has a confused and diffuse middle section as a result, and the ending, and Effie's re-ascendence, lacks power the power it might have had thanks to the competition from Beyonce's Deena storyline, and Foxx's one-note characterization.
Still and all, Dreamgirls is worth seeing. I find the re-emergence of the movie musical intriguing, and the core of this particular movie musical, all problems aside, is well-made. There are moments of brilliance throughout (especially in the first half) which, partially anyway, manage to overcome the film's difficulties. I give special credit to Beyonce, a pop diva whose fame and family position make anything possible for her, for embracing an ultimately unlikable character (even if the film tries to make her more likable) who admits at one point that she's famous not because she's the most talented, but because she's the most marketable. Beyonce may not be the most talented pop singer or actor out there, but she certainly is talented, and seems to understand who she is and makes the most of it. In the end, Dreamgirls is often an enjoyable movie, sometimes a very good one, and worth the $12, even if it does not live up to the hype.