It’s easy to see why people would be excited about Dreamgirls. The film, about the lifespan of a Supremes-esque three-member girl group (and based on the ultra-successful broadway musical of the same name) stars Beyoncé, Jamie Foxx, Eddie Murphy, and Danny Glover, and, as it
tomorrow Christmas Day here, has the best shot at being the Christmas movie, the 9-digit box-office numbers one that movie studios die for but that hasn’t really existed (outside of Lord of the Rings) since Ocean’s Eleven back in 2001. Dreamgirls is a film that, by all accounts, should be fantastic, or — at the very least — interesting and fun to watch, the perfect film for the holidays. Too bad it’s far from it.
There are three — and only three — good things about the film, and they’re not the three girls; they’re Eddie Murphy, the thick coat of audio-visual sheen applied to the whole film, and Steve Urkel.
One of the first people to appear in the film is Jaleel White, the very much alive actor known most/only for playing Urkel on Family Matters. His role, a ten-second appearance as a booking agent, is (fortunately for White) closer to the handsome and sly Stefan Urkelle, and he’s neither good nor bad; he’s just Urkel. And after Urkel, it’s all downhill.
Read on for the rest of our review.
As she always is when she acts, Beyoncé Knowles is entirely forgettable. (John Krasinski — Jim Halpert from the U.S. version of The Office — pulls an Urkel and gets about a minute of screen time, and watching him going back and forth with Beyonce makes it painfully obvious who deserves to be more famous.) Alongside Beyoncé, the weirdly crappy Jamie Foxx plays an egomaniacal manager whose character is ripe for Foxx’s picking but who comes off, instead, as wholly uninteresting. Danny Glover’s role as another manager, meanwhile, is even smaller, even less developed, and even less interesting. The only notable exception in this cast of unlikeable and uninteresting characters is Eddie Murphy, who plays famous singer James ‘Thunder’ Early, his career on a slow decline (he likes to party all the time). Murphy is charismatic, Murphy is funny, Murphy can sing, and Murphy’s character is the only one that has any depth in the film whatsoever or is in any way likeable, pitiable, or well-acted. Anyone watching Murphy in this film will forgive all his recent misdeeds, the Pluto Nashes and Daddy Day Cares, and it’s nice to have him back.
The rest is an unsalvageable mess, a kind of larger-scale Beyoncé: nice to look at and to listen to, but not much else going on worth mentioning. Despite the too-often-awkward transitions between songs and the dialogue, the music still sounds fantastic, and Beyoncé’s co-star Jennifer Hudson (also a bad actress) can really sing. The movie is spectacularly filmed, and the sets, lighting, and costumes are great as well. Everything that could work on the surface does, but for a film about a female soul group, there is simply no soul in it.
And therein is the film’s biggest problem: everything about it is shallow. Dreamgirls isn’t a movie so much as an outline, a sketch of what might eventually be a good film. As is always the risk in any movie that spans a great deal of time, it tries to be so all-encompassing as it touches on so many stages of the group and their members’ lives in the three decades that it covers that it doesn’t give any depth to any of them. Time after time, the movie introduces countless potentially fascinating subplots — radio payola, deteriorating and rebuilding relationships between the girls and other characters, and civil rights or potential racial tensions towards an all-black girl group — and simply glosses over them, including a particularly awkward acknowledgment of Martin Luther King Jr.’s existence that lasts all of a minute. Watching the movie too often feels like a film that’s fast-forwarded, stopped for about three minutes for a song or two, then fast-forwarded again.
If your Christmas absolutely necessitates a day of movie-watching, there are about a million better options than Dreamgirls: surely It’s A Wonderful Life and Rudolph will be on TV, and you can always rent A Muppet Christmas Carol. Hell, tune into Global and watch that burning yule log thing for two hours — just don’t waste your Christmas on this one. No matter how much you polish a lump of coal, it’s still a lump of coal.
Dreamgirls opens tomorrow in Toronto, but you’d be better served checking out the trailer and wondering about what could have been.