Bill Condon’s Dreamgirls is the longest movie ever made — more protracted than Shoah; more drawn out than Gone With the Wind; more belabored, even, than a weekend spent with The Winds of War. Through false endings, interminable emotional seizures, and yes, at least two hundred musical numbers, Dreamgirls is an epic nightmare just in time for the holiday season. Applauded from coast to coast and receiving more standing ovations than a particularly bad State of the Union speech, this movie has, in fact, received its most appropriate praise from the queen of the hausfrau herself — Oprah Winfrey — who labeled it a “religious experience”. And so it is, for what else is a religious experience but the full-fisted assault on reason; a bloated, maddening, torturous slog through falsehood, nonsense, and emotional manipulation so severe that were it lightning, it would reduce all viewers to a pile of stinking ash? “You’re gonna love me”, Effie (Jennifer Hudson) cries during her (and the film’s) big number “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going”, which is the film’s sinister aim, after all — push, bully, and pound its way into your eyes and ears until, exhausted beyond belief, you stop resisting and join the parade of zombies who have declared this to be the greatest musical of the past one hundred years. But while the songs are screamed, shouted, and fried into your memory without consent, it is the story that truly appalls. Light as a feather and leaving no cliché unturned, it is so inconsequential as to dissipate with a slight breeze. You know you’re on shallow ground when The Jazz Singer seems momentous by comparison. And yes, I do mean the Neil Diamond version.
A plot summary would be unnecessary, of course, for if you have come across anything even remotely related to showbiz, you have seen this movie. It’s the epitome of the mothball screenplay: unknowns who dream big, get their shot, become rivals, split up, and reunite by the end to ensure a toe-tapping finale. Along the way, they love a little, get their hearts broken, cheat on the side, and jockey for position. If I’m being vague, it is deliberate, for there’s no reason to go beyond the surface of things. After all, the movie itself can’t even be bothered to try. Because this is nothing more — and far, far less — than the umpteenth version of A Star is Born, only with a darker hue, not a single element of the story is cause for surprise or excitement. The minute a character comes on screen — Eddie Murphy’s James “Thunder” Early, for example — we know his type and consequently, the very behavior he will exhibit. In Early’s case, he’s the James Brown wannabe: the king of the hill who loves ‘em and leaves ‘em, only to become a pathetic, heroin-using has-been who eventually dies offscreen in a Vegas hotel room. His crude pompadour said (roared, actually) exactly that the first time he appeared. And while we’re on Murphy’s back, can someone not star struck or homoerotically obsessed with glitzy Broadway adaptations explain to me the Oscar buzz surrounding his one-note SNL jive? He showed more depth in Daddy Day Care, for fuck’s sake. When he’s not singing, he’s being, well, himself, which is coasting on star power, not acting. But he’s only a small part of this mammoth misfire; there are far greater offenders against all sense of decency.
Take Beyonce Knowles as Deena Jones, the “pretty one” who is asked to be the lead singer of the group, when it is, like, so clear that Effie is the one with the towering voice. Knowles has a certain presence as a songstress, but lacks all charisma as an actor, never more so than when asked to share the screen with Jamie Foxx (who plays her manager, and eventual husband, Curtis Taylor Jr. ). He’s laughably one-dimensional as well — lying snake in the standard scenes, tender lover in others, and starry-eyed champion when he has to be — but his cardboard cutout of a character is fucking Othello compared to his onscreen partner. When she’s not overwhelmed by the multi-syllable words or reduced to a deer in the headlights when asked to emote the requisite pain, struggle, and disillusionment, she sports embarrassing wigs and hoofs around with delusions of personhood. She’s a cipher among ghosts, of course, but by the end of the tale, when she leaves Curtis after being told that she is not allowed to make a movie without his approval, we are so beyond caring that she might as well be standing up for her right to make tuna salad for lunch. And Jesus Almighty of Cock, consider her “exchange” with Effie when the shit done hit the fan, girlfriend. It is but one example of the film’s unrelenting sass, but the lyrics — yes, they sing their insults — are so awkward and stilted that it’s impossible to believe they were approved beforehand. It hurts to watch, and it’s difficult to decide who is more hateful: the bad actress who needs to eat a few cookies, or the bad actress who appears to do nothing but.
So what about Ms. Hudson? She’s already been granted the Oscar, so what is there left to tell? Her big number — at the top of her voice, thank you very much — is essentially a hissy fit set to music, and if it’s meant to pump the tear ducts, it fails on all counts, as her Effie is a snotty bitch who deserves to be cast out into oblivion. Still, her rash decision to leave the group might have meant something had it not been preordained by the screenplay gods. She loves Curtis, you see, but feels used and abused, which is, as we all know, unusual for a singing sensation in Hollywood. And in a jarring flash forward, she is suddenly with child (yes, people, Curtis’ child; though he is unaware until the very end) and applying for welfare, which is but one of two dozen awkward moments that seem to come out of nowhere. The 1960s become the 1970s seemingly overnight, and then, in a flash, there’s disco. Excuse me? This messy feel dominated throughout, but never so much as the first hour, which is fevered and jazzed up like a sugar-infused first grader. The editing is ferociously mind-numbing, and before our eyes, we witness the rise up the charts, recording sessions, bus tours, and excited crowds. All of it is an empty blur, and the people involved so remote as to be invisible. This frantic rush reaches its laughable nadir, however, when the movie attempts to inject social relevance into its cheap, soap opera proceedings. Effie leaves a Detroit recording studio to witness a few moments of a race riot (she is quickly taken inside to the cocoon of her narcissism) and once or twice, something or other is mentioned about Martin Luther King, Jr. Oh, and we learn that white artists stole from black musicians. Is there anyone left alive who doesn’t already know this? What’s next, that our economy depends on illegal immigration?
At bottom, this worthless exercise in style fails as a movie because it uses bright colors and loud noises to distract us from its ultimate banality. It darn sure looks expensive, so ain’t it important? No, and it’s bullshit as entertainment to boot. It’s a colossal fraud that uses race as a prop, then sends its marionettes through the gauntlet of mean-spirited stereotype, as if we needed another cinematic exploration of strong black women who fight like tigers over the same worthless man. Success is a bitch? You don’t say. Jealousy will tear you apart, though it’s never too late for redemption? Curious. Managers come in but two varieties, the old school stick in the mud whose counsel will be sought in the end, and the up-and-coming hotshot hustler who throws it all away (Danny Glover is the coot, which is like Edward James Olmos playing a self-righteous Mexican)? Gee, mister, who woulda thunk it? White people are the devil? Okay, that I knew. And through it all, the musical numbers go on and on and on without interruption. A head turns, the music swells. A door is slammed, the lyrics flow. It’s like being locked in a booth with a CD that drives you to the brink of madness, only to be told the reprieve is simply more of the same. It’s bad enough to be an atheist on America’s most unconstitutional holiday, so why compound the misery with the musical equivalent of severe nerve damage? I doubt I’ll ever have the answer.