12.28.2006

5 Stinky Thoughts on Dreamgirls

The Stinkys just yesterday finally saw Dreamgirls, after weeks of wishing and days of pining for the opportunity to get to one of the two screens in the state of New Mexico (!) on which it was showing. The crowd was biggish, mostly Oprah's demographic, but with pocketfuls of queens sprinkled throughout. So so glad to finally have seen it, but rather than just piling on another review, it seemed better to just blather about the things on Lulu's noggin since seeing what is arguably the most anticipated movie of 2006.

Thought #1: The Best Supporting Actress
The Best Supporting Actress performance in this film, without a doubt, comes from Anika Noni Rose as Lorell. (And, let it be clear, StinkyLulu sez that with Jennifer Hudson in the category -- see Thought#5 below.) To be sure, Hudson's Effie delivers showstopping number after showstopping number while Rose's Lorell mostly brings on the back-up BUT taking things note-for-note and step-for-step and beat-for-beat it's clear: Rose's Lorell is perhaps the most fully executed characterization in the film. Consider how the three principal Dreams bridge the "on-stage" musical numbers with their "off-stage" scenes. Hudson's mostly just "doing choreography" with Effie nowhere to be seen, at least until she's working in close-up. Knowles' confidently radiates Deena when singing and posing but becomes distractingly tentative when a dialogue scene begins. In electrifying contrast, Rose's Lorell is as vividly present and alive in every ensemble number as she is in every "off-stage" scene. Every one of Rose's "on-stage" oo-oohs and hip swirls and waving hand gestures show Lorell as clearly as her "off-stage" giggles, mediations and heartbreaks. Rose's performance is, quite simply, the best in film.

Thought #2: Faster! Louder! Flashier!

The backlash against Dreamgirls has begun, perhaps inevitably given the year of unrelenting hype. And while it would be frankly nasty if the timing of this backlash led to the film's being disregarded by the major awards, the consensus emerging among Lulu's critically inclined pals (exhibits A & B) is spot on. The pacing in this film is just awful -- unrelenting and exhausting. So many goodies just piled on the tray, with little chance to relax and savor the treats. (Thankfully, some of the production design -- the video montages, the album covers, the interiors, the photo shoots -- gave some time to catch up, but even that's rife with sensory overload.) It's like Hollywood now thinks a musical has to have more glitz than Chicago and more energy than Moulin Rouge! but what often results -- especially without the applause breaks that come in live theatre -- is an onslaught of entertainment so glib and so manic that it's just tiring.

Thought #3: Why're People Being So Mean to Beyoncé?

The queens have really had it in for poor little Miss Knowles, haven't they? It's not like StinkyLulu's a fan (at all) but...Knowles' performance as Deena is absolutely competent, with flashes of genuine power even. To be sure, Knowles is at her best in the musical numbers, where she's able to track Deena's growing confidence and style as a performer, and in wordless poses, where she ably conveys Deena's myriad insecurities and misgivings even as she discovers that she loves being in the spotlight. And, at a crucial moment, she acts circles around her more celebrated, newly "introduced" costar. So, while StinkyLulu would have rather seen the compelling Sharon Leal in the role of Deena (instead of in the thankless part of Michelle), Knowles' Deena is by no stretch the weakest link in this acting chain. (No, that honor belongs to the only Oscar winner among the principals.)

Thought #4: StinkyLulu Loves Loretta Devine
Why oh why oh couldn't there have been more cameos? Ken Page and Loretta Devine and Eddie Mekka and Hinton Battle all just whetted StinkyLulu's voracious appetite for more bit parts as quiet homage to great stars of the musical in the 1970s. (On a different tack, even seeing Jaleel White was a kick.) But it's just strange and wrong not to have Sheryl Lee Ralph somewhere in the mix -- like the reframed role of Deena's mother for example. And though it's hard to imagine Jennifer Holliday fitting on a movie screen -- perhaps as Curtis' Aunt? -- it's sad that the opportunity was missed...

Thought #5: Jennifer Hudson's Limits
Oh boy. All of StinkyLulu's greatest hopes and biggest fears were realized in Jennifer Hudson's performance as the iconic Effie. She brings down the house again and again and again (the late afternoon Albuquerque audience burst into spontaneous applause for Hudson's Effie no fewer than three times) and yet...it's a distressingly incomplete performance. And it basically boils down to the fact that, over and over and over again, Hudson gives next to nothing unless she's in close-up. Within the focal moments of the narrative and score, Hudson's Effie is captivating and often thrilling. In the in-betweens, it's mostly Hudson just standing there or awkwardly shoopadooping while wearing Effie's costume. Unless the camera's right up in her face, Hudson gives nothing -- least of all the necessary emotional architecture to bridge Effie's big moments. It's a strangely discordant thing: Hudson's performance contributes some of the year's best screen moments while also punctuating most of them with some of the worst flat-footed, boring and banal acting StinkyLulu's seen in some time.

So, lovely reader, do you have any Dreamgirls thoughts? Do tell...

9 comments:

ModFab said...

Not you too, Stinky! First Nathaniel gets bitchy and whiny about it, and now this. Why can't my lovely film queen friends just sit back and enjoy this film? Did the hype get too much at the end? Were hopes built too high? Back when I saw it (in November) things hadn't quite pitched this high.

Is it the greatest film? No. But is it as terrible as you make it out here to be? As much as I adore you, I have to say...no way, baby.

(But I share the Anika Noni Rose love.)

NATHANIEL R said...

i love anika noni rose too... loved her in Caroline or Change and her "Lorellloves Jimmy" moment is divine --one of the only moments in the film in which I was transported through performance alone and not the director or music or anything else cueing me into the import of the moment.

but it's not so much 'bitchy and whiny' as realizing that to love it just to be loving it is lazy. I had my issues with Chicago and expressed them then too (though I think Chicago is the better film of the two for sure) i don't just love musicals because they're musicals. but it does help me to enjoy even the troublesome ones.

i agree with points #2,4,5 at any rate. But I think Beyonce is a mess in this. She saves all her "acting" for 'Listen' and she's sensational in that one scene but one scene does not a performance make.

ModFab said...

I just don't see the problems you two see...apples and oranges, I guess. To me, the film is plotted well (with the exception of the Deena Jones additions in the third act, which I doubt Condon could do anything about.) To me, the pacing seemed fine...it's not "exhausting" to me. (MOULIN ROUGE, now that's got exhausting pace...although I love that too, so maybe I'm just a speed freak.)

The comments about Hudson only acting in close-up strike me as bizarre...you criticize her for being a backup singer and not stealing focus, I guess. I see that as a director's call, not an actor's.

And as for #4, I understand that attempts were made to allow cameos for Ralph and Holliday, but that the agents got in the way. I don't know all the details, but despite Holliday's statements to the contrary (which I reported on my blog), it looks like an offer was extended. Maybe it was too small, or whatever.

I'll continue to weep at the critical pile-on for a film that really doesn't deserve the hate...

StinkyLulu said...

I'm very pleased to be able to blame agents for not getting more cameos. I am greedy that way.

But Gabriel. There's a difference between stealing focus and being legibly in character. And it's a difference I know you understand... I do credit Condon greatly for Hudson's often amazing performance but it remains really inconsistent work. The seams show. Call my assessment bizarre if you must, but don't call it "hate," please. It's just my honest, considered reaction. (I don't know if that makes me an apple or an orange.) And, really, I wouldn't worry too too much about Jennifer Hudson suffering for lack of love as a result of six sentences from a D-List blogger in the boonies.

Lucky for me I lost my gay card long ago, or this JHud stuff would really jeopardize my standing...

ModFab said...

I understand what you're saying about a legible character, but I don't really see it as a problem with Hudson...I remember at least half a dozen places of ensemble action where she was engaged, focused, and clear. People just see different things, I guess. Having seen Hudson in interviews and (embarrassment for me) on AMERICAN IDOL, I realize how different Effie is from Jennifer, so I was amazed at the turn's completeness. To me, the seams didn't show.

And Stinky...you know I love you more than chocolate. (And I LOVE chocolate.) But I am distressed, surprised, and dismayed by the number of critics I know who are attacking DREAMGIRLS with fervor...including your post here. I don't doubt it's your honest critical reaction, and Nathaniel's, etc. My personal reaction is that, whatever the flaws of DREAMGIRLS are, the reaction to them has been woefully outsized. Is it because of the hype surrounding the movie? Is it because movie musicals were ready to take a hit? And why does this always seem to happen to films with black people? These are my questions, not directed at anyone in specific...I respect that you dislike what you dislike, but it follows a lot of other vitriol from people I didn't expect it from.

Critics this year really lost their ballast, I think: watch them work overtime to try to save the box office grosses of MARIE ANTOINETTE and THE FOUNTAIN (maligned artistic products), and you can interpret (or I do, at least) a frustration at being outside the public conversation. Critics like to believe they matter. They depend upon it, actually, for their livelihood. So what better way to prove one's merit than to attack the most buzzed-about film of the year? I'm not saying that you are doing this, or Nathaniel, or anyone in specific. It's just something in the air, a flaccid cry of anger against the mainstream. And I feel like DREAMGIRLS is the pretty, shiny, imperfect toy everyone wants to beat up on.

Side note: this is going to sound like I'm out for Nathaniel, but I'm not. I LOVE NATHANIEL. But many critics are mentioning the supposed superiority of CHICAGO, and if I hear it one more time, I may croak. CHICAGO was just as myopic, just as flawed, and just as surface. The two films share a dazzling supporting performance, a weak lead, and a candy-colored pallette. They both have narratives fashioned out of cotton candy, and a design aesthetic that pushes far too hard. They both apologize for being musicals in their very construction (Chicago is a dream, and Dreamgirls has a dozen montages). They both fall apart in the middle of the second act, and find their footing again in the last ten minutes. The only difference is if you prefer the faux-vaudevillian tunes in Chicago to the faux-Motown of Dreamgirls, which is at best a personal predilection.

I say all of that not because I hate Chicago (indeed, it was my #2 film that year), but because it seems so odd that the flaws of Chicago were overlooked by the critical masses...the same flaws they are at pains to point out in DREAMGIRLS. And that drives me crazy.

Lastly, Stinky: about your expired gay card. I lost mine years ago. When you come to visit, we'll have a brew and swap stories about how we're clearly not gay enough. (Hint: I don't even really like Cher, but I bought her albums anyway to fit in.)

StinkyLulu said...

A couple other things, in the spirit of full disclosure:

1: I sorta loathe Chicago. A lot. Talk about seams showing.

2: I watched the Fantasia season of AI religiously. And my very first attempt at blogging was inspired by the legendary bottom 3 episode. But I confess that I've never "gotten" Jennifer Hudson. I knew that going in & did everything I could to maintain an open mind/heart during the screening. But I emerged still nonplussed. I know I'm in the minority here...

3: I'd rather watch Chicago and Dreamgirls every day than see Marie Antoinette again...

NATHANIEL R said...

i understand Gabriel's frustration... and even the anti mainstream factor of knowingly disliking an audience favorite but it is my honest reaction.

I had my issues with Chicago too (it didn't make my top ten list) but I do think it a better film. But Gabriel is right that part of that is that I just prefer Kander & Ebb to the Dreamgirls score.

if one more person bitches about Marie Antoinette i'ma go ballistic. It was even better the second time. It's lonely loving it but you gotta call it like you see it.

* i L-O-V-E Jennifer Hudson. was gaga crazy for her on AI3 --the only contestant I've ever religiously called in and voted for. the only contestant truly that I've wanted to see after the show was over (usually the crushes are very shortlived --katharine mcphee who?) but I fall inbetween modfab and stinky here --i saw the seams but she makes up for a lot with the volcanic moments.

J.J. said...

Stinky -- Agreed across the board, except for Beyonce. This woman has no personality and an affected, tinny singing voice. She has some fleeting moments of authenticity, but I assume this was due to Condon's coaching and his quick-draw on the camera. But what kills me is that Beyonce will be accepting an Oscar in February for a song that, in the film, is a musical anachronism.

Jennifer Hudson's performance came across as bad high-school musical acting/mugging. She seems too green, too disinterested, like she was relentlessly coaxed into Effie (and she was). She has a great voice, though.

Point of order: I happen to think Chicago is a near-perfect movie musical. No seams there at all. Really. Which is why I was disappointed by Condon's messy story construction in Dreamgirls. But remember that Dreamgirls as a stage musical ain't great source material. This isn't an excuse; it's just an explanation. Condon could've reinvented it onscreen. Instead, he just moved it.

jakey said...

Thank you for your item #3, the defense of Beyonce Knowles. Her performance isn't great, but it's certainly able. Deena is supposed to be a mediocre singer, so the constant comparisons of her to Jennifer Hudson can be misleading. But despite the plethora of good to excellent performances in this film, I found the most surprising to be not by Knowles or Hudson but by -- dare I say it -- Eddie Murphy.