Bill Condon's Dreamgirls is a good entertainment. The flashy costumes and art direction humorously and quickly establish the various time periods, and the thinly veiled references to Motown history help make the film an enjoyable exercise. However, there is something off throughout the movie that keeps it from greatness. Some of the musical numbers occur while the performers are on-stage or in the recording booth, and these songs help express the characters' thoughts and feelings, but other times the characters break into song in everyday life, and these moments -- so natural in the best movie musicals -- feel forced in Dreamgirls. The problem first becomes apparent in the famous "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" sequence where Effie (Jennifer Hudson) pours her heart out both to her bandmates and to the man she loves after being kicked out of the band. The song requires a near-operatic expression of emotion and the movie grinds to a halt, visually as well as dramatically. It is quite literally a showstopper, but while Hudson gives a strong vocal performance, the sequence goes on for so long that the audience becomes aware she is lip-synching. The song is so personal, such an individual expression of anger, grief, and inner turmoil, that even though it plays so powerfully on the stage, it loses something vital in the translation to film, and this disconnect will take some viewers out of the moment. Hudson's hard work impresses, but that may be indicative of just what is off about the entire movie: the filmmakers never let you forget how hard everyone is working. This is underscored during the closing credits, where each craft is spotlighted just as it is during the annual Oscar telecast. The costume director's name appears alongside images of wardrobe sketches and the final costumes made from them. All this work is appreciated, and one is thankful that they cared so much, but the best musicals make all of that hard work seem effortless. The most memorable and evocative moments in movie musicals happen when song and dance are simply the only avenues by which the characters can express the scope of their emotions. There is a lightness to great musicals, and Dreamgirls is certainly not light. Dreamgirls is good, but it would impress more if it weren't so eager to impress.
by Perry Seibert review