The original Brodaway production of the musical Dear Evan Hansen won six Tonys off of nine nominations, making it the single most-awarded production of the 2016-'17 season. In some years this would mean very little, but that season was an atypically competitive one for critically-acclaimed new musicals, meaning that there had to be some actual enthusiasm for Dear Evan Hansen at the time it was new. And for all I know, there still is: four years isn't all that long a time for people's opinions to change, and 2020-'21 doesn't count, so it's more like three. What this says about theater versus cinema, I cannot say, and there's every possibility that the live version of the show is a wonderful, heartfelt triumph of the theatrical arts. But what we have in front of us now is the film adaptation of the show, directed by Steven Chbosky from a script by Steven Levenson, who also wrote the book for the stage production. And I can say things about this, and virtually all of them are going to be hostile, because whatever might have worked onstage, Dear Evan Hansen: The Movie is just awful.

This is obvious enough from the basics of the plot. Evan Hansen (Ben Platt, notoriously returning to the role he originated) is a high school student suffering from various emotional disorders, most significantly depression and social anxiety. As part of coping with the latter, his (never seen) therapist has suggested that he write letters to himself - "Dear Evan Hansen", and there's the title - reminding himself that he's a good person and he's going to make it through the day. Evan prints these out at school, and one of them is found by the mercurial Connor Murphy (Colton Ryan, who understudied the role on Broadway), who goes from trying in an awkward way to befriend Evan to screaming at him after the letter reveals Evan's crush on Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever), Connor's sister. Later that day, Connor commits suicide, and his parents, Cynthia (Amy Adams) and Larry (Daniel Pino), assume that the "Dear Evan Hansen" is his suicide note. Evan tries, very briefly, to correct this, but when it becomes clear that Cynthia takes great comfort in the letter, he instead begins concocting a complex web of lies to make it seem like he and Connor were the dearest of friends; in short order, he has invented a completely fictional personality for the dead boy, tailoring it to the family's idealised version of Connor rather than the ill-tempered and even bullying figure he was. Shortly thereafter, Evan delivers a eulogy to this fake version of Connor at a school memorial service, and his speech goes over so well that he becomes a viral sensation, giving comfort to sad and socially isolated people all over the country, becoming the toast of his school, and striking up a romantic relationship with Zoe.

Virtually nobody in the entire film comes off altogether well except for Zoe and Heidi (Julianne Moore), Evan's poor single mom, who works soul-crushing hours and is consumed with concern for her son's wellbeing, and hates her inability to be there for him: it's very obvious that Cynthia and Larry were distant figures who love Connor more in death than in life, the student activist Alana (Amandla Sternberg) is more obsessed with using Connor's suicide as a way to create a club and fundraise than she is about mental health, and Evan himself is an opportunistic liar, even if he doesn't start out doing so intentionally. And that's fine! There's a way to make this work: turn it into a high school version of Elmer Gantry, making Evan a conman who delights in his ability to manipulate the world and using the ease with which he becomes a small-scale celebrity serve as a reflection on how hungrily people will use their reaction to tragedies to make themselves look good. Make a snotty, cynical dark comedy out of it. In practice, Dear Evan Hansen goes in exactly the opposite direction, functioning as an achingly solemn tale of the toll of emotional disorders on the adolescent brain, putting up Evan as a sad and broken but sweet and lovable sage. The big musical number where he gains his viral fame, "You Will Be Found", is presented as a soaring, anthemic promise that people are basically good and loving - if the film was aware that the entire notion of the lyrics is built on rotten foundations, that could be a slick bit of irony, but it seems to genuinely think that Evan whipping up a flagrant pack of impossible lies right on the spot is warm and inspiring.

Anyway, the material we get is the material we get; I cannot imagine any version of Dear Evan Hansen surviving this unfathomable decision to make this material sentimental and uplifting, but that's what Levenson and songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul did, so that's what we're going to have to deal with. Sadly, the film is far from the best execution even of this dubious material. Chbosky has not previously impressed me much: his much-beloved earlier "sad teens" movie, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, left me ice-cold, and his last film, Wonder, also about a sensitive-hearted outcast, survives mostly because of a startlingly good and complicated Julia Roberts performance. But they're both at least functional, and I do not thing I can say that about Dear Evan Hansen. It doesn't make us wait very long to learn that, either: the very first musical number, "Waving Through a Window", includes the lines "'Cause I'm tap, tap, tapping on the glass / I'm waving through a window", and when Platt sings "tap, tap, tapping", editor Anne McCabe cuts three times, right exactly on the beat, moving the camera perspective to several different angles around Platt. It is, I cannot overstate this, this worst fucking thing. This is what you do on your very first day editing your very first piece of video set to music; you watch it back, and have a good laugh, and if you're with somebody else in the editing room, they say, "haha, well that didn't work", and you hit the "undo" button a few times, amused by how gaudy it was. That shit doesn't make it to the assembly edit, let alone all the way to a final cut released in theaters to a paying audience. It is infantile, and Chbosky and McCabe should be put in stocks and shamed in the public square for perpetrating it.

Sadly, the film turns out to have a pervasive addiction to cutting exactly on the beat, and to the devil with pacing or storytelling or just even assembling coherent physical spaces. Generally speaking, Dear Evan Hansen is stylistically banal, not actively terrible, but almost all of its worst moments are its musical numbers, which is murder for a musical. There's one time this choppy, punchy "music video" approach works pretty well, "Sincerely, Me", in which Evan and his barely-a-friend Jared (Nik Dodani) concoct several fake e-mails to establish a history of correspondence between Evan and Connor. It's the only one of Pasek and Paul's songs that doesn't sound exactly like all of the others (slightly downtempo pop anthems - they all sound almost exactly like all of the songs from the duo's original film musical The Greatest Showman, from 2017, and I think the important moral here is that it's extremely good for La La Land that they only wrote the lyrics to the songs in that film, while Justin Hurwitz wrote the music); it's fully of snarky, conversational asides and skips along at high, bouncy speed. The snappy editing matches the energy, and works with Chbosky's game of staging the song as a series of repetitions of compositions, representing the pieces of the letters that Evan and Jared keep reworking. It is the one point in all of Dear Evan Hansen where it actually does something to make the musical number feel like a piece of sonic and visual storytelling, rather than just a way to pause the movie for three minutes while a character establishes that they feel one specific kind of emotion. "You Will Be Found" is particularly awful, turning into a montage of social media videos floating in space, culminating in the fever-dream bad joke of Evan's face above the clickbait headline "HIS FRIEND COMMITTED SUICIDE... YOU WON'T BELIEVE WHAT HE DID NEXT!" Which brings me back to the idea that transforming this into a cynical dark comedy would have been a pretty easy way to salvage it.

When it's not a musical, Dear Evan Hansen is at least just boring, not aggressively terrible. The cast mostly isn't good; 27-year-old Platt, in particular, is a nightmare of miscasting, looking less like an actual teeenager than anybody since 34-year-old Stockard Channing led a pack of middle-aged people through high school in Grease. And that, at least, was a flippant comedy. Dear Evan Hansen desperately wants for us to buy into the emotional reality of its story, and the way it reveals the pains of depression and anxiety that too many high school students suffer through silently, afraid of seeming abnormal, and it just can't do that when Evan Hansen shuffles through the halls of class like an arthritic mummy, creepily glaring at Zoe with grimly inappropriate ardor (Platt is just over three years older than Dever; it looks more like 15). This ends up feeding into how wildly out of whack the film's tone goes: if we're to buy Evan as a sympathetic figure, he needs to read as a kid who got in over his head and doesn't know where to stop, not as a gaunt 35-year-old trying to coerce teens into following his lead.

Anyway, Platt is a disaster, but the film isn't swinging for the fences with great acting. Moore gives the film its best performance, by a hell of a lot, and that in a role that doesn't really do much to the plot or even the emotional arcs. She's there to have somebody look sad when Evan is quiet. And Moore nails that, while also amplifying the tiny scraps the movie gives us about Heidi's life. The only scene she shares with Adams is easily the film's highlight (and the only place in the movie where Adams noticeably wakes up), as Cynthia's kindly condescension on financial matters is met with ice-cold fury that Moore treats with a brittle smile and a tightness in the back of her throat as she talks; it's a thrilling injection of actual stakes into the plot, telling us quite a lot about class tensions and the pride of a single mother who has fought extremely hard to get where she is and refuses to be viewed as a tragic case. I would not have expected one calendar year to provide two different scenes where Julianne Moore acting across from Amy Adams represents the sole bright spot in a lousy movie that specifically suffers from its creators trying to force somewhat trashy material into the material of an emotionally earnest prestige drama, but with The Woman in the Window, we now have one of the world's saddest double features ever available to us.

Anyway, there's pretty much nothing here that works and quite a bit that's spectacularly terrible; the worst part of all is that it's so gravely self-serious about such heavy topics that it can't even be splendidly bad. It's just ploddingly mediocre, 2021's official first crappy flop Oscarbait. And if there's not a better sign of the film ecosystem returning to normal than that, what could there be?