In the most impressive musical movie debut since Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl, Jennifer Hudson, who was dismissed by a now-repentant Simon Cowell on "American Idol," steals Dreamgirls clean away from the likes of Beyoncé, Jamie Foxx and Eddie Murphy.
As Effie White, an overweight and outspoken member of The Dreamettes, a '60s girl group inspired by The Supremes, Hudson rivets you from her first moment onscreen with her pretty face and natural, forceful acting. When she is unceremoniously dumped from both the group and the romantic affections of Curtis Taylor (Foxx), the group's producer, she launches into that soulful behemoth of a torch song, "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going." On Broadway, Jennifer Holliday wailed her way through this number into instant theatrical legend and, if anything, Hudson matches her interpretation cinematically. It's staged by director Bill Condon like another Broadway showstopper, "Rose's Turn" from Gypsy, on an empty stage in an empty theatre, beautifully stylized, and the film never tops Hudson's ferocious rendition. Poor Beyoncé, who's been perfectly charming and refulgently gorgeous (in Sharen Davis' dazzling period costumes) as Deena Jones (i.e., "Diana Ross") throughout, is given a sop of a big solo number, "Listen," to claim something of her own, but after Hudson, it's merely that--a sop--and there's no doubt in anyone's mind who is the real star of the film.
Happily, Condon respects the musical form here, not cornily conceiving the numbers as either "a dream" or "all happening in the heroine's head" (as in his overrated adaptation of Chicago). He also respects the talent of his actors who, unlike the Chicago cast, all have real musical chops, and therefore don't need all that deceptive hyped-up cutting to manufacture their performances. He's rewarded by sequences of intermingled talk and singing which achieve operatic intensity, especially in Effie's scenes of strife, which are numerous.
In adapting Tom Eyen's original book, Condon hasn't done much to enrich the characters of Foxx or Murphy, playing singing star James "Thunder" Early. They're too one-note, the former being a ruthlessly ambitious exploiter, and the latter a tortured junkie. Foxx admirably doesn't soften the unsavoriness of Curtis, which is only leavened by one beautifully soft-sung ballad, "When I First Saw You," to his beloved Deena. What was needed was more opportunity for Curtis' irresistible charm to sneak forth, as Clark Gable and James Cagney used to show when playing unregenerate bad boys. Murphy works overtime to convey something of that James Brown/Little Richard onstage fire, but the sweat is a little too evident. He's definitely actor enough to have conveyed more of Early's haunted depths, but the material and direction didn't push him far enough.
Exclusive opening engagements in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco are charging a $25 admission fee, and as outrageous as this sounds, you almost get your money’s worth, as the production is top-flight all the way, with a detail-attentive lavishness rare these days. There's glamour to spare in the recreation of the glory days of Motown, jazz boites and other pertinent musical entities of the era, and the film overflows with opulent production numbers, photo shoots and songs, some admittedly better than others. Choreographer Fatima Robinson's work is a thoroughgoing delight, gracefully elegant in the demurely ladylike moves she's conceived for the rechristened Dreams and more snappily hard-edged contemporary in something like "Steppin' to the Bad Side" for the guys.