Dreamgirls' greatest weakness is, without a doubt, its story, which, while interesting, is never especially emotionally engaging. The film plays out like a fictionalized account of a real musical group, and although the writers do merit applause for taking such an approach, the viewer is, nonetheless, because of this approach, never able to involve himself with any of the protagonists. The narrative sweeps from one important moment to the next in its characters' lives, showing their personal crises and the like, but it never builds up to these. Emotions are shown fully developed, without their growth and background ever being revealed. The viewer, as a result, is never able to immerse himself in the characters' feelings in the way he would have had he witnessed how these emerged.
In fact, none of the film's characters are particularly involving, even though all are skillfully portrayed by the actors. While, for example, Hudson is competent as Effie, and does successfully bring out that woman's jealousy, stubbornness, and anger, her character, being basically an unpleasant individual, is unlikely to engage the viewer. Happily, Knowles' Deena is a far more appealing individual, and the actress does deserve considerable credit for underplaying her part. Knowles usually has a strong presence, but here she seems shy and unprepossessing, for bringing out which traits she really does deserve to be complimented. It is a shame that the director never develops her character as fully as he could have. Other characters, regrettably, are often little more than caricatures or decorations in the background.
That said, I do not mean to imply with these criticism that the cast members do not acquit themselves well. Ms Knowles, as I have already noted, is a pleasure to watch, and several of her colleagues are as good as she is. Murphy can be a little histrionic, but he is also believable as the womanizing singer who is always pointing out how he is a trendsetter, even if he is not acknowledged as such by others. Fox is competent as the manipulative, self-absorbed Curtis, and Hudson does make her character's self-destructive stubbornness and egotism believable enough for the viewer to see how she is destroying herself.
Such virtues are very real, but, undoubtedly, the film's best element is its music. Some of the numbers are genuinely breathtaking, both to listen to and to watch. Even those that are not enthralling are usually pleasant. I will admit that I did find a few of the songs performed by Hudson to be a bit loud and grating, but such moments are exceptions to the generally fine quality of the work with which the viewer is presented. The movie, to put it simply, has a great soundtrack.
Finally, I should note that the director has given the film a visual style that greatly adds to its impact. With its gritty, dilapidated dives, its garish, brightly colored 1970s era pads, and its energetic musical numbers (all of which are shown with split screens, dynamic cuts, and like), the film is enthralling simply to look at.
While I will hardly claim that Dreamgirls is a masterpiece, it is a real pleasure. It is, certainly, one of the best films of the year.
Review by Keith Allen
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