Bill Condon may be a more capable filmmaker than Rob Marshall, but his Dreamgirls lacks the one quality that Marshall’s sub-par Best Picture winner Chicago had going for it – an invigorating, irresistible, knockout score. It’s a shortcoming attributable to the 1981 Broadway source material, and one glaringly amplified by the fact that Condon’s adaptation of Tom Eyen’s book – so lackluster that it doesn’t dramatize its central professional and romantic conflicts as much as it verbally articulates them – relies on its mundane music to bolster its otherwise thin Motown-set story. Infamously based upon Diana Ross and the Supremes, Dreamgirls charts the tumultuous ups and downs of the Dreamettes, who – with the help of shady promoter Curtis Taylor Jr. (Jamie Foxx) – make a name for themselves backing up fading R&B star James “Thunder” Early (Eddie Murphy). Rapid chart-topping crossover success, however, is soon complicated by the tension between beautiful lead singer Deena Jones (Beyoncé Knowles) and self-destructive Effie White (American Idol runner-up Jennifer Hudson), the latter’s demotion from the front-and-center to backup duties because of her weight and titanic ego leading to nasty discord.
Condon isn’t much of a visual stylist, and his centerpiece set pieces lack a requisite electric charge. Nonetheless, the blame for the proceedings’ tepid mediocrity – aside from the writer/director’s cursory treatment of the Civil Rights movement raging outside his insulating nightclub locales, a cause Deena/Diana betrays by discarding Effie/Florence Ballard for white-audience popularity – falls squarely on Eyen and Henry Krieger’s so-so original tunes, which faithfully replicate the sounds of ‘60s and ‘70s pop-R&B hits (including some by B.B. King and Jackson 5 look-alikes) but never hit anything approaching an ecstatic high note. Hudson’s powerhouse pipes and soulful sassiness give her enough diva-tastic vivacity to ensure an Academy Award nomination (if not win). Yet the primary reason the all-attitude, little-depth newcomer stands out so forcefully from her illustrious costars is that they’re either stuck playing one-dimensional sexy scoundrels (Foxx), busy proving their wholesale inability to emote outside of decently choreographed musical sequences (Knowles), or tepidly rehashing decades-old sketch comedy routines (Murphy, whose Early proves to be a slightly more pitiful variation on the comedian’s memorable “It’s too hot in the hot tub!” James Brown caricature).