Basically, Dreamgirls is an ’06 version of an Eighties retelling of a Sixties tale – the Motown story. But it hasn’t improved with age. The main problem, as usual, is the script – or lack thereof. (There’s another problem I’ll get to in a moment.) Other than the most hackneyed of plots – the girl with the talent (Hudson) doesn’t get the lead because she’s not good-looking enough – this movie has almost nothing to offer as a story. Characterization is thin. We learn very little of the background of the major players. Plot points appear and disappear at random, references are made to historical events (ML King, the Detroit riots) but are not followed through, the dialog is flat-footed, etc.
The whole enterprise feels “dumbed down” more than the usual amount by the studio development system. But whatever the case, writer/director Bill Condon has left his cast with little to do but emote in the most obvious fashions. Some otherwise superb actors – Jamie Foxx, Danny Glover – end up seeming mediocre. Foxx particularly, as a fictionalized Berry Gordy, is betrayed by the screenplay. Surely the real life Gordy was a more interesting villain (if he was a villain – there would have been no Motown, no Diana Ross, no Martha and the Vandellas without him) than the one-note character portrayed by Foxx. Beyoncé, as “Diana Ross,” looks good at times but also is not given anything by the writer to show us the complexity of the original Ross. Surely this woman was not as much of an innocent victim as this film makes her. Even the reliable Eddie Murphy, who does an entertaining variant of his old SNL Little Richard routine at the outset, declines in interest as the movie goes on.
Now for the second problem, which may even be a greater one: A good score has always been important to a stage musical – it could cure a lot of ills. In our times of unrelenting surround sound, it may even be more important for a film musical. And because Dreamgirls was based on an era of fabulous popular music many of us remember well (The Big Chill), it looks especially bad for having a humdrum score featuring watered down versions of that music. Compare and contrast this movie with recent films about pop stars – Walk the Line, Ray – that did use the original music. Walk the Line, a favorite of mine, allowed us to relive the life and loves of Johnny Cash and June Carter through their music in a terrifically satisfying manner. Dreamgirls is The Supremes without “Baby Love.” Pheh!
Roger L. Simon just received his Oscar nominations ballots for screenplay and Best Picture. He’ll be reporting in on his nominees, if he ever makes up his mind.