Bill Condon's elephantine adaptation of the hit Broadway musical Dreamgirls reduces a riveting, important period in black musical history to a glittering Las Vegas revue more concerned with what characters are wearing than what they're feeling. Dreamgirls aims to tell an archetypal story of triumph and tragedy, success and failure. But Condon paints with such broad, familiar strokes that the film feels generic; in setting out to tell everyone's story, Condon ends up telling no one's. He aims for the iconic and larger-than-life with his fuzzy pastiches of real-life soul superstars, but dead ends at sketch, derivative conceptions.
In a scenario that borrows from a century of show-business clichés, the gorgeously lifeless Beyoncé Knowles stars as a Diana Ross-like singer who rockets to the top with the help of her Berry Gordy-like lover/Svengali (Jamie Foxx). Knowles' success comes at the expense of her group's original lead singer Jennifer Hudson, an uncompromising wild child whose prickly attitude squanders the professional opportunities her big voice affords her. Just about the only thing keeping Dreamgirls from lapsing into a sugary coma is the energy Eddie Murphy brings to the scene-stealing role of a self-destructive showman who's Little Richard-by-way-of-James Brown, with a little Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye thrown in for good measure.
Dreamgirls paints Knowles' character as a beautiful blank upon which audiences can project their fantasies. Knowles' divalicious role calls for a small voice and big personality, but Knowles instead offers a big voice and non-existent personality. Condon seems reluctant to cut a single moment from the venerable musical-theater warhorse, and the endless deluge of big, melodramatic scenes and show-stopping production numbers quickly proves exhausting. It's the ultimate pop-culture sacrilege: a movie about soul music that has no soul.