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Movie Review: DREAMGIRLS

The idea of pursuing a dream and falling prey to the pitfalls of fame -- that is, the themes that inhabit the 2-hour musical bombardment that is "Dreamgirls"-- is a dramatic concept that has been around forever; in fact, long before the Broadway premiere of the show, which took place more than 25 years ago. Bill Condon seems to know this. The Oscar-winning screenwriter of "Chicago", who also takes a stab at directing this time around, chronicles the lives of these fame-hungry performers like he's a racehorse sprinting towards the finish line. He doesn't stop to breathe. Neither can the audience.

Take a look at the closing moments of the film's most buzzed-about scene, following Jennifer Hudson's highly charged rendition of "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going". After placing a final exclamation point on a glass- shattering vocal climax of defiance and torment, Condon swoops his camera into another non-consequential musical montage with barely a batting of the eye. He doesn't provide so much as a breather for the audience or any opportunity to absorb the power of what they have just witnessed. It's as if the movie didn't recognize its own most powerful moment because it's in too much of a hurry to get to the next scene. This film hasn't been designed to be savored or truly experienced; it's all about forward propulsion.

Delivering a constant flurry of sensation is not necessarily the wrong direction to go for a movie musical. But it requires a lavish and imaginative directorial touch (which Condon does not posses) and, most importantly, a memorable program of musical numbers. A great melody can reach the heart faster than any art form in existence; its emotional, visceral power is immediate. A great movie musical, like "Singing in the Rain" and sections of Condon's own "Chicago", can make an audience feel alive. Very few melodies featured in "Dreamgirls" are even remotely memorable, and I honestly cannot distinguish many lyrics that managed to stay with me. Most of the score only exists to serve a mild purpose; as a device to distinguish between the story's passing decades.

There are two exceptions, one of which is the previously mentioned outcry of need from Ms. Hudson that startles audiences at the picture's halfway point. The other selection was written specifically for the filmed version of the piece. "Listen", as performed by Beyonce, is a battle cry for independence and, like Hudson's song, actually reflects the development of character in a manner you can feel. Beyonce's performance of this tune is first-rate, but sadly has been overshadowed by Hudson's all-out belt-a-thon earlier in the film. Another selection sung by Ms. Hudson, "One Night Only", is probably the most radio-friendly of the bunch and one of the best sung, but sounds strangely reminiscent of Debbie Boone's snooze-fest "You Light Up My Life". For a film supposedly based on the Motown movement, it is surprising that the songs in the piece are not catchier or more immediate and hum-able.

When your musical score leaves something to be desired, your saving grace could be your cast. On this count, Condon has assembled a stellar ensemble, but has utilized them with varying degrees of effectiveness. Beyonce is not the thriving heart of the picture, nor is she intended to be. She gives a very professional, straight-forward performance in a role that requires her to be transparent during the first two-thirds. This can be a difficult task, and Beyonce pulls it off admirably. When she finally gets to let loose with her signature number "Listen", she truly seems freed and inspired within the moment.

Jamie Foxx also performs solidly as the ambitious record producer whose greed overcomes him. He gives the part exactly what it requires, no more or less. It's an effective, if not entirely imaginative star turn. Foxx has a terrifically smooth voice that, sadly, is not put to much use here, with the exception of one ballad that appears late in the picture.

Supporting players all deliver dependably, even though the limited nature of their stock roles (old timey manager, naïve young songstress, struggling artist sell-out) keep them from surprising us. Perhaps Condon was relying on Eddie Murphy to provide these surprises. Murphy works hard as James Thunder Early, a once white-hot soul singer who finds himself less and less relevant in the evolving world of rhythm and blues. Armed with a solid, mature voice and plenty of energy (he seems to be game for anything – particularly inventive direction), Murphy is a presence, for sure. But he is, perhaps, the wrong presence for the film. The reason is simple: baggage. Every time Murphy opens his mouth to mimic James Brown, his performance takes the shape of his old "Saturday Night Live" skits from many years ago. As a result, you can't take his character seriously – you see shadings of a comedic caricature, not of an Otis Redding or a Marvin Gaye. This is not entirely Murphy's fault, as much as a defect in casting. A Don Cheadle or a Cuba Gooding, Jr., for example, could attempt the same level of performance as Murphy provides in the film and still ring twice as true.

But, clearly, the film belongs to Jennifer Hudson. Her Effie White, as a character, is the focal point of the picture. As a performer, Hudson is all hunger. The surprise of her performance comes from her ability to uncover the vulnerability as well as the attitude of the character. This is all encapsulated within the five-minute span of time during which Hudson performs her signature tune. Not only is she a galvanizing singer, and a more than capable actress, she is a performer with every fiber of her being. Rarely has a vocal interpretation leapt off the screen and into the heart with such power and ferocity. A star is born.

Structurally, Condon's screenplay is sound. And occasionally, he will come through with an inspired piece of magical movie showmanship, like the camera swivel that introduces Murphy's first musical number. But, for the most part, the performance interludes in the film have been directed rather blankly. There's very little expressiveness in the camera work or the staging. There's nothing from a directorial standpoint that elevates the material from the page.

Performances that fail to captivate (with the exception of Hudson), mediocre songs, impotent direction and an overly anxious cutting style that sacrifices emotional content: these flaws all conspire to keep "Dreamgirls" firmly planted on the ground when it should be soaring to the heavens. C+

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