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Dreamgirls offers up the razzle dazzle, but when the characters aren’t belting out the showtunes and pseudo-pop, the film devolves into an emotionally detached exercise in Broadway-to-screen adaptations.

Turn the Wig Around

A Broadway sensation back in the early ’80s, Dreamgirls is a thinly-veiled tale based on Diana Ross and the Supremes.

In this cinematic adaptation, Beyonce Knowles (Austin Powers in Goldmember) tackles the Diana Ross-esque role of Deena Jones while American Idol contestant Jennifer Hudson makes her big screen debut as Effie White.

Starting off with the familiar storyline of a musical act struggling to get noticed and airplay, the Dreamettes get set to take the stage at a talent show in Detroit. They’re anxious to make it big and, fortunately for them, there’s an agent back stage anxious to break the next big thing. Curtis Taylor is his name and paying off the judges so the girls lose is his game.

Curtis (Jamie Foxx, Ray) is right there to console the girls and he steers them into a $400/week gig singing backup for James “Thunder” Early (Eddie Murphy, Bowfinger).

To his credit, Curtis knows he has a good thing on his hands and, in order to finance the endeavor – and buy radio play – he sells off his Cadillac dealership. With the newfound funds on hand, the Dreamettes find themselves rising to the top.

Sort of.

Their first smash with James Early, Cadillac Car, is quickly rehashed into pure white bread for the Dick Clark set by the totally generic Dave and the Sweethearts.

The Sound of Tomorrow

Therein lies one of the film’s strengths: director Bill Condon (Gods and Monsters) skillfully weaves in the racial tensions of the ’60s as the girls fight their way to the top of a white-dominated music industry.

Unfortunately, that dramatic backdrop oftentimes takes a back seat to a cast of stock characters that are so self-involved as to be unlikeable.

Knowles does a fine job inhabiting her character, perhaps the most sympathetic of the bunch. In spite of the Broadway producers’ denials that the Supremes are the show’s inspiration, Deena Jones in this movie is clearly Diana Ross. At one point Beyonce stands in front of an all-too famous wall size portrait of herself; the shadows and lighting and hair – it’s a perfect recreation of a very famous Diana Ross portrait. Smaller moments like that work so well amidst the flamboyance of the stage shows.

Eddie Murphy brings some scene-stealing magic. He piles it on as an outrageous, drugged up superstar who repeatedly finds himself trying to keep up in an ever-changing industry.

On the other hand, Foxx and co-star Danny Glover are disappointing and surprisingly bland. For lack of a better term, they are pure vanilla in their roles.

From Motown to Broadway

As for the much ballyhooed star turn by Jennifer Hudson, yes, she can belt out those numbers. Her rendition of And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going definitely qualifies as an on-screen show stopper just as it would be on the stage. But Oscar talk is irrational exuberance. She does great with the singing, does fine generating some sympathy for a self-centered, pompous character with poor judgment. But classifying her performance as one of the year’s five best is a stretch.

At times Dreamgirls soars, but there are other times when it sinks. That usually happens when the movie lacks emotional resonance. Outside of a few spectactular songs, there’s no particular reason to care much for the characters.

Visually, Dreamgirls offers up plenty of cinematic eye candy, but it’s too literal an adaptation of the Broadway show. While four new songs have been added for the movie, some of the older songs simply scream to be freshened up and presented with a little more imagination.

Dreamgirls has a lot going for it, but it never quite rises above the level of cheesy, stale ’80s Broadway showtunes.