Dreamgirls spoilers follow. Not that they'd ruin anything for you if you understand the concept of connecting the dots. Or if you've merely heard of connecting the dots, but haven't yet tried it for yourself. Or even if you've not yet gotten to the chapter in your math book in which two and two are put together.
I give you the benefit of the doubt. The movie, however, does not.
At some point during the second half of Dreamgirls, Eddie Murphy's James "Thunder" Early character wonders aloud, "Isn't music supposed to express what people are feeling?" I wasn't sure if he was reading the script or the mind of the film's director, Bill Condon. It's appropriate that the string of showbiz clichés that is Dreamgirls is based on that tried-and-false principle. Dreamgirls primarily exists to tell what whomever that is on the screen is feeling at any given point (it's far too busy cruising around pseudo-Motown and various other crudely sketched eras and changing wigs to actually show us what the characters are feeling). You know how some sci-fi movies create a world so complex and removed from our own that whatever's coming out of the characters' mouths primarily serves to explain why whatever's happening is happening (think Dune or A Scanner Darkly)? Dreamgirls also does this, and so it should only be interesting to those who have not been exposed to any facet of the human condition. It's sci-fi for aliens.
Oh, but it's a musical, right? This is how it's supposed to function, all big and broad and loose in the pelvis and this is this and that is that and I am telling you... Maybe this display is effective on stage. Maybe it's even necessary in an environment where subtlety can easily be confused for apathy. However, it looked plain stupid, from where I was sitting in the movie theater and, let's not forget that, I like (if not live for) exaggerated displays of human behavior, be they real, fictional or of reality television. The problem with Dreamgirls and why I couldn't appreciate it as camp (and believe me, I tried -- I always, no matter what movie I'm about to see, hope to end up laughing at it) is there's nothing outrageous behind the exaggerated masks the cast wears.
There's so much ado about such mundane tripe -- a girl group (the Dreamettes) rises to fame, loses a member, gets more popular, learns hard lessons and collectively emerges wiser and with bigger hair than anyone ever would have imagined. It's even more standard than Glitter, but contains none of the ridiculous fun. No surprises are offered (and if they're even attempted, Condon is even stupider than what he takes his viewers for). Once it's clear that that Dreamette outcast Effie (played by OMGTHEBESTTHINGTHATEVEROPENEDHERLUNGSEVER aka Jennifer Hudson) isn't going to die (which is one cliché I really wouldn't have minded, since she's a tragic figure and all), it's also clear that she's going to reunite with the Dreamettes during their final performance. It's clear that Deena (not so much played as zombified by Beyoncé) won't be punished for being such a silent, ignorant bitch, for she must eventually reconcile with Effie (10 years too late, but whatevs!). It's clear that Jamie Foxx (playing Curtis Taylor Jr., a blind, deaf man's Berry Gordy, Jr.) will get his in the end. It's clear that Eddie Murphy's Early will overdose the minute his drug problem is suggested. Notice I write "suggested," because the movie doesn't have the balls to say what it needs to say -- the camera cuts away long before Early shoots up. If there's squeamishness here, it isn't over the audience's reaction, but the MPAA's. Dreamgirls gets down, but checks out before things turn dirty. Seriously, I wonder if "shit" is said the exact number of times that would ensure a PG-13 rating. When I heard Beyoncé utter the film's sole "fuck," I almost ejaculated.
And this plays into what I find most infuriating and insulting about Dreamgirls -- the cliché that announces itself the loudest (it should have been asked to stand 17 feet away from the mic) involves the weighing of art versus commerce. Foxx's Taylor believes that instead of being a vehicle of expression, "music is supposed to sell," and he's vilified for it. Both Early's idealism (as mentioned above) and Taylor's bottom-line realism are extreme attitudes toward pop music. Dreamgirls champions only the "artists," (be they tragic like Early, fortunate like Deena or a little of both like Effie), and the film seems foolishly unwilling to accept that even at its best, most singular and most soulful (as so much of Motown's golden-era catalog was), pop music is still a product. The Dreamettes are opportunistic and eager to be seen from the start (they pine for their big break) through the end (the reunited-and-it-feels-like-such-a-photo-op finale with Effie in tow). It's as if the film is suggesting that fame is more noble of a pursuit than money. The fame-hungry characters are inherently good, while the money-hungry is bad. As if. (Seriously, think about it: would you rather be trapped in an elevator with investment bankers or aspiring actors? At least the bankers will leave you the fuck alone.) And let's not forget where this art-over-commerce championing is coming from: a Hollywood product itself, so blinded with dollar signs that it waters itself down for the good of its PG-13 audience. If integrity were really such a concern, why didn't Condon just stage a revival on Broadway? It's what his direction suggests he'd be better suited for, anyway.
All of this is enough to ensure an unpleasant viewing experience, but what topped it all off and made Dreamgirls the most excruciating movie I sat through in 2006 (like, worse than Hard Candy) was the music. I suppose it's here that the art-versus-commerce argument makes sense; Dreamgirls' book (which can be approximately characterized as a shrill ringing in your ears) isn't art, but it's even less likely to result in commerce. It, too, is insulting in its revision of the thick and groovy Motown sound as a treble-happy shriekfest (or coo-fest, when Beyoncé's up front). As it traverses decades, it expects us to believe that everything -- be it from the early '60s to the late '70s -- sounded like '70s game-show themes and A.M. gold. It's simply painful to the point where, during the second hour (/act), every time they'd start singing, I'd say, "Please don't. Please stop," even though I was fully aware that I was watching a musical and they, in fact, would continue.
I'm not one to knock others' taste (really!) -- I figure that what's important isn't what you like but why and how you like it (that's how I can sleep at night, anyway). But really, in this case, I'm so confused as to why people love Dreamgirls. I just don't get it. I do, however, like the sense that Walter Chow attempts to make of the Dreamgirls reign of terror in his review for Film Freak Central (my favorite of all the Dreamgirls reviews I've read, though Ed Gonzalez's is also great): "This year's Brokeback Mountain in a lot of ways, Dreamgirls is the movie over which it's impolite not to fawn."
I can agree with everyone in the free world about one element of Dreamgirls: Jennifer Hudson, who often transcends the garbage of the dump she's plopped in (trash heap, nyah!). She's great as the quintessential embodiment of sass; she's astounding as a big girl in Hollywood who's in complete command of her sexuality (I understood fully why Taylor falls for Effie before Deena -- it's a lot less of a stretch, in fact, than the film's assertion that Hudson's voice is so much better than Beyoncé's). Of course, her voice is amazing -- she finds perfection in small embellishments like melismatic growls that provide more ineffable (ha!) soul in milliseconds than the rest of the film, all put together. I look forward to watching her win her Oscar. For helping me through a film that I thought approached the unwatchable, I'd go as far as to nominate her for canonization.