The Prom is a flashy, sort of sloppy, assortment of Broadway set pieces, that is far too long for how shallow it is. All that aside though it’s hard not to enjoy large parts of the film or even delight in seeing famous actors just camp it up to the rafters and revel in the joy of being arch. It’s a musical that’s never as big as it should be but is also rarely ever small.
Ryan Murphy has taken the Broadway play, by Chad Beguelin, Bob Martin, and Matthew Sklar and truncated it for the small screen. Even with all the stuff Murphy and the screenwriters, Beguelin and Martin, cut out, The Prom still feels as if it covers too much without really covering anything at all. It’s easy to forget this is all based on real events given Murphy’s flair for the over-dramatic.
Dee Dee Allen (Meryl Streep) and Bary Glickman (James Corden) are two has-been Broadway stars who refuse to believe their celebrity has faded. The two are co-starring in a Broadway musical about Eleanor Roosevelt. Dee Dee opines, “Well, Eleanor Roosevelt was a brave, powerful, charismatic woman who no one had ever heard of.” The show closes almost as soon as it opens.
Part of the fun of The Prom is seeing the legendary Streep embrace her post-Mamma Mia career as an actress willing to ham it up and have a good time. Her Dee Dee is a self-absorbed aging starlet who can’t understand why anyone would be unhappy once she’s in the room. Streep is, as usual, fantastic and mines every line, exaggerated facial tick, and hair flip, for all their worth.
Corden on the other hand is the fly in the soup. For the most part, The Prom is cotton candy fluff. How much you enjoy the movie depends on how big your appetite is for this sugary confection. But looking at Corden’s Barry, while on paper, every bit as camp and arch as Dee Dee, his performance feels outdated.
He plays Barry with a sort of flaming quality that seems offensive and forced coming from a known heterosexual actor. The way he holds himself feels like something from the 90s with his limp wrists and dainty footsteps. He’s not playing Barry so much as he is playing “gay” and it sinks much of the movie.
After the show closes the two are drowning themselves in their troubles at a local show bar. The bartender Trent Oliver (Andrew Rannells) a Juilliard graduate who can’t let a moment pass without reminding someone of his alma mater, tries to soothe their egos. They’ve just been informed by their manager, Sheldon (Kevin Chamberlain), that no one likes them.
“No one likes a narcissist.” Murphy wisely leaves room for the audience to laugh before skipping over the most obvious joke and instead of going with the slightly less obvious joke. That of the two stars being self-involved shallow buffoons. Enter Nicole Kidman’s bizarrely named Angie Dickenson, a chorus girl who has grown weary of always being just beyond the spotlight.
Angie discovers on Twitter that a high schooler named Emma (Jo Ellen Pellman) in Edgewater, Indiana is being banned from going to her own prom because she’s a lesbian. The so-called “celebrities’ see their chance to seize the spotlight and fix their reputations. Trent knows a non-union roadshow of “Godspell” with a tour bus that’s going that way so they all hitch a ride.
The Prom is very much an outlandish musical about people learning to accept people different from them. Mrs. Greene (Kerry Washington) is the conservative, puritanical matriarch who rules the PTA with an iron fist stopped only by an exhausted and underfunded Principal Tom Hawkins (Keegan-Michael Key).
Key plays Tom as a baffled and concerned ally. He’s a man, who like many Americans, is struggling to understand where the hell all of these outrageous bigots came from. Surely they weren’t here before? Luckily for Dee Dee, Tom is a massive fan, and soon the two begin to start up a simmering romance.
It’s easy to feel for Tom as his students seem as rotten and hollow hearted as Mrs. Greene. Vain and pious, they mock and tease Emma for her gayness. She’s not alone though, as Emma has a secret girlfriend. Someone who she meets under the bleachers at night after school for secret romantic trysts; the closeted cheerleader Alyssa (Ariana DeBose), aka the perfect daughter of the bitter Mrs. Greene.
Of course, Mrs. Greene gives in and allows Emma to go to Prom. But once she discovers Emma has a girlfriend, she and the other students schedule another prom on the same night. They don’t tell Emma or Alyssa who was going to use the night to come out. Instead, Emma arrives at an empty school without her date and alone.
The Prom tries to juggle all these storylines as the Broad actors find their attempts to refurbish their image met with one obstacle after another. Meanwhile, poor Emma is struggling to be the only gay person in Edgewater while Alyssa can’t quite bring herself out of the closet.
There is, of course, an entirely different layer existing in this film regarding Alyssa, a young Black and closeted teenager, coming out to her Black mother (especially when her mother says, in a wildly loaded line later in the movie, “I just don’t want you to have a hard life”). If only the script would’ve taken a few liberties to focus on that story instead of letting Corden chew the “gay” scenery for so long.
Pellman and DeBose are a delight to watch and have an infectious cheeriness about them. Both women are queer and it’s no end of refreshing to see two wlw actors play two wlw teens. The two are charming and can stand next to Kidman, Streep, and Washington without being blown off the screen, a talent and statement of confidence that is impossible not to admire.
But it makes Corden’s Barry all the more galling. Especially the subplot where Barry reveals that his parents threatened to take him to conversion therapy when he came out to his family in high school. Dee Dee pushes him to reach out and try to reconnect.
I hate storylines like these. They almost always diminish the trauma of being rejected by one’s parents. Especially parents who were going to subject their son to the psychological torture of conversion therapy. If they had reached out then maybe it would be semi-palatable, but for Barry to have to be the bigger person seems too much.
Both the scene in which Barry tells his coming out story to Dee Dee and his actual confrontation with his mother are effective. But Corden’s forced “gay acting” hampers what could have been powerful moments. Not to mention part of why Emma and Alyssa’s scenes work as well as they do are partly because the two actresses understand the feelings that come with those moments since they’ve lived and incurred them. Corden’s on the other hand, while a good actor, comes away feeling hollow as if he’s merely going off what he’s seen in other performances.
When all is said and done Murphy’s direction is too loose. Many scenes feel as if they drag on long past when Murphy should have cut to the next scene. The musical numbers are full of energy and the performances are pitch-perfect, Corden’s aside, but The Prom still feels as if it’s tired.
For most of the runtime, I wondered why Nicole Kidman was even in The Prom. Her character Angie seemed to do little except to slink to the side of the frame with that cold mysterious implacable smirk of hers. Don’t get me wrong I’m fine with Kidman doing that for a whole movie but it seemed like a waste of Kidman. But then the Bob Fosse-inspired “Zazz” number popped up and I understood immediately.
Kidman and Pellman strut about Emma’s living room, as Angie attempts to help the girl find her confidence. The cinematographer Matthew Libatique, though confined to a suburban living room, uses spotlights and colored lighting gels to create the feeling of Fosse. Kidman is more than up to the task as it’s obvious she’s having a ball.
Libatique is the modern prince of darkness when it comes to cinematography. His Solo was lit like a noir to the point that most movie theaters could barely project the film with the proper lighting. But he’s no stranger to pop musicals either as he also shot the timeless Josie and the Pussycats. His camera is at times stilted but at other times he reminds us how dull and unimaginative movie musicals have become lately.
His best moment, aside from the glitter shadowed finale, is a brightly lit number in the local mall “Common Sense”. The choreography is fun and energetic. Libatique makes sure that although it’s hard to believe that a group of small-town religious bigots could have their minds changed through song, it’s fun to sit through Trent’s attempt.
The end is, of course, happy and inclusive. Though for my money too inclusive. The very students who pulled the malicious prank on Emma and Alyssa are quickly forgiven and invited to the queer-friendly prom Emma has set up. The same student’s whose attitude has kept Alyssa closeted, are welcomed with open arms to a prom designed for other queer kids they would have bullied a scant few minutes earlier. I get The Prom is trying to be positive but it would have been nice if the straight students would have had to do more than a song and dance to be forgiven, musical or no.
But the final song is joyous and of course, Alyssa and Emma end up together with Mrs. Greene accepting her daughter for who she is. If you thought The Prom would have ended any differently then you clearly haven’t been paying attention. Still, it’s nice to see queer teens get a happily ever after, they deserve at least that much.
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