‘Dear Evan Hansen’ Made Me Feel a Lot of Very Different Emotions, and I Can Think of Worse Ways to Spend an Evening

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Dear Evan Hansen (CREDIT: Erika Doss/Universal Pictures)

Starring: Ben Platt, Kaitlyn Dever, Amy Adams, Julianne Moore, Amandla Stenberg, Nik Dodani, Danny Pino, Colton Ryan

Director: Stephen Chbosky

Running Time: 137 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Thematic Material Involving Suicide and Mental Health Struggles

Release Date: September 24, 2021 (Theaters)

My brain is so frazzled by Dear Evan Hansen, and I just don’t know what to say. Part of that is due to the movie itself, which offers an occasionally offbeat and fairly frightening mix of tones. And it’s also certainly a matter of the mocking buzz I encountered in the buildup to the film’s release. Sure, the trailer can be seen as too-earnest-for-its-own-good inspirational fluff. And yes, the hairstyling makes 27-year-old Ben Platt look ten years older instead of ten years younger. But I wanted to wait it out to discover what I actually thought about it myself. Maybe I would be won over by the earnestness! Or maybe I would find it just as ridiculous as it loudest naysayers. Or perhaps I could enjoy that ridiculousness in a campy fashion. So now that I’ve actually seen the movie itself … it hasn’t really cleared things up.

It does have a premise designed to keep plenty of audiences on edge, after all. Based on the 2015 stage musical of the same name, it’s about the anxiety-stricken teenage title character (Platt) who is given the therapy assignment of writing a letter to himself, which then gets mistaken as the suicide note of Connor (Colton Ryan), a classmate he barely knows. From there, the lie just keeps snowballing as Evan lets everyone believe that Connor was his best friend, and their story becomes a viral sensation that anyone who’s ever had mental health struggles can take solace in. I’m most impressed by DEH when it leans into its inherent discomfort. A waking nightmare threatens to envelop us all as Evan tries to explain the truth but Connor’s mom (Amy Adams) practically begs him to stick with the version of the story she so desperately wants to believe. This movie could have made us feel just as anxious as Evan does all the time if it had wanted to. Instead, it only does that occasionally, while also making us bawl up and heartily chuckle and just let everyone know that they’re not alone.

There were definitely parts of this flick that fully worked on me. The rendition of the signature song, “You Will Be Found,” had me unabashedly bawling. And Nik Dodani, who plays Evan’s “family friend” Jared, is making quite a name for himself as a mischievous little scamp. But I would’ve liked it if we had seen a bigger fallout from the truth finally coming out. And when it comes to movies about a lie regarding someone’s death spinning out of control, I must say that I much prefer the bracing dark comedy of the Robin Williams-starring World’s Greatest Dad. Anyway, my friend who I saw DEH with was won over completely, so it’s definitely for somebody. And in truth, parts of it are for parts of me.

So let’s get to the One Million Dollar Question: would I want Evan Hansen to write a “Dear Evan Hansen” letter to me? I think that would be fun! But only if we could tell the truth (the whole truth!) from the get-go. Anything else would be too stressful.

Dear Evan Hansen is Recommended If: You Think You’re Going to Love It, But Also If You Think You’re Going to Hate It, Because Our Opinions Will Be Found

Grade: 3 out of 5 Letters

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Escape Room’ Makes Immersive Puzzles Fun and Unsettling

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CREDIT: David Bloomer/Sony Pictures Entertainment

This review was originally published on News Cult in January 2019.

Starring: Taylor Russell, Logan Miller, Deborah Ann Woll, Tyler Labine, Jay Ellis, Nik Dodani

Director: Adam Robitel

Running Time: 109 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Disorientingly Perilous Action, Traumatic Flashbacks, and Inadvertent Drug Use

Release Date: January 4, 2019

Depending on where you’re coming from, Escape Room is arriving either ten years too late or right on schedule. The real-life escape room craze is still going strong, if TV shows as diverse as Conan and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend are to be believed. From that perspective, Escape Room the film is cannily capitalizing on a current trend. But considered from a cinematic context, the Saw series already set the template a decade ago (and now even exists in its own escape room form). But that is not exactly the highest standard. Thus, Escape Room, which renders immersive puzzle spaces actually deadly, has plenty of space to make its mark as a solid piece of entertainment for those who do not have the stomach for torture porn.

That is not to say that Escape Room is a pleasant watch, especially for anyone claustrophobic enough to find the entire concept of escape rooms frightening enough in the first place. It has a cruel streak, though it is tempered by a consistent preference for hope (or at least the illusion of it). Where Saw was often gross and off-putting while occasionally trying to say something about human nature, Escape Room is tightly engineered but also unsettling in just how random it ultimately is. The six people who have been chosen for this challenge all have a past as the lone survivors of deadly accidents, including drunk driving, an IED blast, and carbon monoxide poisoning. While the escape room has been designed with their histories in mind, that concept may have everything or nothing to do with who makes it out alive. The (possibly sequel teeing-up) ending is effective as a gut punch saying that this whole game is actually a “no escape” room. But the whole movie has a feeling of meaninglessness that is somewhat frightening but also the sign of a screenplay with limited subtext.

That said, while Escape Room‘s themes and motivations are never fully clear, it was successful at holding my attention, and I suspect that many audiences will feel the same. The designs of each section of the escape room are ingenious feats of engineering, from a lobby that turns into an oven to an upside-down pool bar. It also helps that each of the characters generally act to the top of their intelligences, making this an engaging battle of wits. We also get at least two different kinds of comic relief, with Tyler Labine as the goofy uncle type and Nik Dodani (best known as Murphy Brown’s new social media director) as the escape room enthusiast who realizes too late how real the threat is. The whole thing is fluffy, but enough to make you think twice about playing any more interactive games.

Escape Room is Recommended If You Like: Actual escape rooms probably, plus the Saw and Final Destination series

Grade: 3 out of 5 Unlocked Doors