Whereas most major movies these days rely on carefully calibrated publicity campaigns to build and sustain Oscar buzz, the press has spontaneously touted Dreamgirls as an Oscar "lock" since before casting was complete. But 13 months later, most major critics have seen the film, and their returned verdicts are decidedly mixed. Whilst the musical certainly has its fans (such as our own James Rocchi), critics from major publications such as The New York Times, Premiere, Salon and New York Magazine have dared to come out against the film.
Lest you think I'm exaggerating by using the word "dared," take a look at the disclaimers some of the guys and gals have tacked before their reviews. "I know I'm going to bring down the room by saying I think it's just okay," writes David Edelstein at NY Mag. "Well, Jennifer Hudson is more than okay..." Aaron Hillis, a Premiere writer moonlighting at The Reeler, also anticipates that reviewing the film negatively will somehow brand him as an outcast: "I'm bound to take some abuse for being a real holiday Scrooge [by] saying I don't think Dreamgirls is particularly good." I find these reviews fascinating, not because they're negative, but because they contain such a palpable sense of anxiety on the part of the critic. Dreamgirls seemed like such a prohibitive frontrunner at the time it was screened for the press that anyone who didn't like it must have wondered if they were missing something. It certainly seemed unlikely that The New York Times' A.O. Scott, who is not generally known for staking out unpopular opinions, would dismiss Bill Condon's musical as "disappointing."
Personally, I think Dreamgirls has a lot of problems that the very good performances of Jennifer Hudson and Eddie Murphy can't come close to covering. Even if we get around the fact that Condon's staging is largely uninspired, and that the director lacks the confidence in his performers (and his audience) to let them sing, instead of speak, most of the recitative, the original material is just mostly insipid. I understand that there's a tricky balance here -- Dreamgirls is about an effort to white-wash black music in order to make it palatable for the masses, and there is an underlying critique of consumer culture's tendency to drown out passion and virtuosity in favor of coolness and competence -- but there's no getting around the fact that most of the songs in this musical are just bland and bad. The notable exception is the much-touted "And I Am Telling You I Am Not Going," but even that number suffers from ridiculous lyrics. Curtis Taylor Jr., the used car salesman-turned record producer who has just fired Effie for being fat, and who seems to be sleeping with Effie's best friend, is "the best man [Effie] has ever known?"
Of course, we all know that critical response has an almost inverse correlation to box office success, and judging by the crowd reaction at the Dreamgirls roadshow screening that I attended this weekend, Paramount is going to have no problem filling seats when the film opens wide on Christmas Day. But considering the recent, somewhat unexpected surge of both Letters From Iwo Jima and The Queen, and the fact that Martin Scorsese's phenomenal The Departed is still on a lot of people's minds, it looks to me as though Dreamgirls' days as a front runner are just about over.