Dreamgirls (DreamWorks, PG-13)

beyonceAs a musical, Dreamgirls probably falls somewhere between Singin' in the Rain and Everyone Says I Love You, which, of course, is a large gap.

 

 

dreamgirls

The perils of fame and fortune mixed with the squandering ambition of young women are certainly not a new subject in cinema. From the buxom Carrie Nations of Russ Meyer's Beyond the Valley of the Dolls to Irene Cara in Fame, you'd think these girls would have gotten the hint by now. In Bill Condon's Dreamgirls, we travel back to the early '60s, where a bright-eyed trio of singers (Jennifer Hudson, Beyoncé Knowles, Anika Noni Rose) get their big break backing for the modestly successful R&B artist Jimmy Early (Eddie Murphy), only to dream of becoming a super group of their own. Essentially a thinly veiled portrait of the Supremes, the Dreamettes achieve their goal at a price: the replacing of soulful Effie (Hudson) as lead for the more soluble, less talented Deena (Knowles).

As a musical, Dreamgirls probably falls somewhere between Singin' in the Rain and Everyone Says I Love You, which, of course, is a large gap. It's surprisingly less glitzy and showy than Hollywood's last successful Broadway-to-film musical, Chicago, but this is not exactly to the film's benefit. Condon appears uncomfortable with the musical scenes that don't take place inside a studio or onstage in front of an audience. The scenes where characters break out in song between their performances feel awkward, even if Hudson knocks 'em dead. Like most musicals, Dreamgirls' musical numbers range from the wonderfully ecstatic to the painfully limp (better known as the "bathroom break numbers"). While he succeeds with a few, Condon alternately seems consciously avoidant and crucially naïve of the clichés attributed to the pitfalls of the musical; the potential, unnecessary conflict between Deena and her mother about going on the road with Jimmy is nicely reduced to a brief shot of Deena leaving a note on her mom's pillow during a montage. Yet, as the film reaches its second act, Condon forgets what he did so well before the time jump. Scenes between Deena and manager Curtis (Jamie Foxx) go on too long, and Jimmy's descent into heroin addiction is a complete bore, not to mention that most of the musical duds occur in the latter part of the film.

As a backstage drama, Condon (Kinsey, Gods and Monsters) blends the fiction with a strange reality, as a number of the actors seem to be playing recreations of themselves. You can't help but wonder if you should be applauding Knowles for taking a backseat in the film in the "Diana Ross" role, because a leading lady she's not. Whether she's taking a risk or just blind to the similarities, she's effectively passive throughout, spiced with the occasional moments of super diva. Even Deena calls attention to the fact that she's vocally inferior to Effie but assumes the lead almost like a vocation. As Effie, Hudson becomes the center of the drama, the talent unfairly, grudgingly pushed aside for a "whiter," thinner, prettier girl. Hudson is Effie, an unjustly rejected American Idol contestant with a voice like a soulful explosion. Hudson is really the only actor here to shine, overshadowing an empty Jamie Foxx as the manager, a confused Murphy trying to break free of his post-transvestite scandal family film schlock, and Danny Glover as, well, Danny Glover. Knowles' unremarkable presence here works; whether it's due to assured direction or acting incompetence is unclear. Though never a significant failure, Dreamgirls' only truly successful attribute is the assuredness of a blossoming recording career for Hudson. | Joe Bowman

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