3 stars (out of four)
"Dreamgirls" is performed, shot, edited and packaged like a coming-attractions trailer for itself. Ordinarily that would be enough to sink a film straight off, unless you're a fan of "Moulin Rouge." But this one's a good time. Four years ago the film version of "Chicago" operated on a similar rhythm and restlessness, and that worked surprisingly well against the odds too.
Bill Condon, a writer of distinction ("Gods and Monsters," "Kinsey") adapted both "Chicago" and "Dreamgirls" from their Broadway originals. "Dreamgirls," which Condon also directed, enjoys a natural advantage over Rob Marshall's film version of "Chicago." Unlike Marshall, Condon doesn't have to shoot around anyone's limited musical or choreographic abilities. Everyone on screen belongs there. (Well, Jamie Foxx seems a little lost, but more on that later). When Jennifer Hudson, last seen and heard getting the shaft on "American Idol," body-slams "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going," a song that eats people like you for breakfast, you do not think to yourself, well, too bad they couldn't find someone who could really sing it.
Staged by Michael Bennett, the 1981 Broadway incarnation of "Dreamgirls" moved so fleetly you barely had time to notice that the show--about the mid-1960s rise of a Supremes-like vocal group and subsequent detours into jealousy, heartbreak, breakups and disco--didn't have much of a second act. Condon does what he can to remedy this in the film version, though much of the narrative comes at you in montages and the briefest of dialogue snippets. Snippet-ettes, even.
Playing a Detroit car salesman turned record producer of Berry Gordy proportions, Foxx receives top billing, which is ridiculous. He doesn't seem to know how to play this cardboard smoothie, who is required to stare, mutely, at the divas having heart attacks in song all around him. The men never were interesting in "Dreamgirls"; this is ladies' night.
The story begins at a Detroit talent contest, where Deena (Beyonce Knowles) and giggly, pliable Lorrell (Anika Noni Rose) sing backup to Effie (Hudson). The contest is rigged and the ladies lose, but in swoops Curtis (Foxx), who hooks up the Dreamettes with a Little Richard stomper, James "Thunder" Early (Eddie Murphy, great fun and a likely Oscar nominee along with Hudson).
Curtis starts out in Effie's bed and ends up with Deena, who moves from backup to the star-making Diana Ross slot. ("Dreamgirls" is loosely inspired by the Supremes saga.) Despite a new ballad written for the movie, the character of Deena hasn't a chance in terms of audience sympathy against Effie, the pathos factory. Hudson has the good sense, even at her young age, not to treat every second of screen time as an opportunity to destroy her cohorts. The role does all the work, and her big number--emotional blackmail in song--works overtime.
The best numbers in "Dreamgirls" are both theatrical and cinematic. At one point Effie, now a single mother and struggling to get by, auditions for a last-chance gig. (Ken Page, one of many Broadway veterans in this cast, plays the club owner.) Halfway through the song "I Am Changing," thanks to a nicely judged cut, Effie's no longer auditioning; she's midway through her comeback set before an ecstatic opening-night audience and the club looks like a million bucks. A simple idea, but it works. When editor Virginia Katz gives him half a chance, Condon can really shape a sequence.
If you're a fan of the original, or the original cast album, chances are you'll love the film. I'm less keen on the score, so my "Dreamgirls" admiration was for the craft and the performers. For a musical largely taken up with the matter of black music getting co-opted and whitewashed by Anglos, this is pretty pale stuff, even by the standards of Broadway-ized Motown. Fauxtown's more like it. But Condon knew what he wanted, and got it: a smooth, shiny showbiz fable.
Written and directed by Bill Condon, based on the Broadway musical by Tom Eyen and Henry Krieger; cinematography by Tobias Schliessler; edited by Virginia Katz; production design by John Myhre; music by Krieger, lyrics by Eyen; produced by Laurence Mark. A Paramount Pictures release; opens Monday. Running time: 2:11. MPAA rating: PG-13 (for language, some sexuality and drug content).
Curtis - Jamie Foxx
Deena - Beyonce Knowles
Effie - Jennifer Hudson
Jimmy - Eddie Murphy
Lorrell - Anika Noni Rose
Marty - Danny Glover
C.C. - Keith RobinsonCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times