'The Prom': Film Review

The Prom
Netflix

Meryl Streep and James Corden in 'The Prom'

Bedazzled to within an inch of its life.
12/4/2020

Meryl Streep, James Corden and Nicole Kidman head the cast of Ryan Murphy's Netflix version of the musical about Broadway narcissists championing the right of an Indiana lesbian to take her girlfriend to the school dance.

Meryl Streep is in delectable form in The Prom as Dee Dee Allen, a Tony-winning stage diva who must unlearn years of celebrity self-absorption and take the unfamiliar step of putting other people's needs first. Whenever she's center-screen, this Netflix adaptation of the disarming 2018 Broadway musical sparkles with campy humor. Elsewhere, the starry casting and heavy hand of director Ryan Murphy do the featherweight material few favors, with inert dramatic scenes and overblown musical numbers contributing to the general bloat. The movie's most undeniable value is in the representation it provides to LGBTQ teens via a high school dance that is every emotionally isolated queer kid's rainbow dream.

The musical features a score by Matthew Sklar and book co-written by Bob Martin and lyricist Chad Beguelin, full of songs that are catchy in the moment, even if they seldom linger long in the head. The modestly scaled Broadway production packed considerable appeal into its casting of beloved New York theater veterans playing caricatures of themselves as they descend on small-town Indiana with a self-serving plan to rehabilitate their unsympathetic reputations. Even if the sentimental side was less captivating than the satire, the mere fact of it being an original musical in a landscape of repurposed movie brands and jukebox compilations earned the show a lot of good will.

Adapting the musical for the screen, Martin and Beguelin pad out the interludes between songs in ways that deflate the humor while exposing the fragility of the core drama. It doesn't help that Murphy, whose credo might be "the busier the better," frequently has cinematographer Matthew Libatique's camera careening around the characters for no discernible reason.

There's also been a shift in national attitudes that works against the comedy. Back in 2018, it was still somewhat possible to laugh at the acrimonious gulf between Red and Blue states. After four years of hate-mongering Trump machinery, nobody's amused. That makes controlling PTA queen Mrs. Greene (Kerry Washington) a gorgon as she rules to cancel the high school prom rather than permit Emma (Jo Ellen Pellman) to bring a same-sex date. When progressive school principal Tom Hawkins (Keegan-Michael Key) gets the backing of the State's Attorney's office to hold an inclusive prom, Mrs. Greene uses more underhanded means to circumvent that mandate, inflicting maximum cruelty on Emma.

"This isn't America, this is Indiana," says the self-righteous conservative crusader. "This is about big government taking away our freedom of choice." Given that Black women have been the backbone of the Democratic Party for generations, the casting of Washington, whose forte is not comedy, is an eyebrow-raiser. It feels less about acknowledging that there are indeed Black conservatives out there than about jamming one more star name on the marquee.

Our antipathy for the character is pretty much sealed once it's revealed early on that Mrs. Greene's daughter, Alyssa (Ariana DeBose), is Emma's secret girlfriend, who's planning to come out of the closet at the prom. So Mrs. Greene's inevitable about-face, when she finally puts her maternal feelings ahead of her politics, plays as a mechanical happy ending rather than a development grounded in character.

The Murphy touch is evident from the start when W45th Street in Manhattan's theater district becomes a glitzy riot of LED signage that puts Vegas in the shade. Dee Dee and her co-star Barry Glickman (James Corden) are celebrating opening night of their Eleanor Roosevelt bio-musical Eleanor! when a withering pan in The New York Times turns the Sardi's afterparty into a wake. Their publicist, Sheldon (Kevin Chamberlin), informs them that the critic has a point: "It's not the show. It's you two. You're just not likable. Nobody likes a narcissist."

Figuring they need to come up with a cause to help overhaul their tarnished image, Dee Dee and Barry put their heads together with Trent (Andrew Rannells), an out-of-work actor forced to tend bar, and Angie (Nicole Kidman), a perennial chorus dancer who's been waiting 20 years to go on as Roxie in Chicago. With Emma's prom plight trending on Twitter, they board a nonunion Godspell tour bus and head for the Hoosier state determined to change lives.

The movie's best number encapsulates the culture clash of patronizing East Coast liberals emerging from their bubble to illuminate the blinkered paths of heartland hicks, as Dee Dee steamrolls a heated meeting singing "It's Not About Me." The joke being that of course that's exactly what it's about. The tango-themed showstopper contains some of Beguelin's funniest lyrics, with Dee Dee illustrating how the theaterati's worldview is entirely formed by their stage experience when she sings, "Unless I am doing The Miracle Worker I won't play blind, deaf and dumb." Reincarnating her Death Becomes Her scenery chewer with a dash of Patti LuPone, Streep is consistently hilarious.

The first sparks of an unlikely love interest between Dee Dee and devoted Broadway fan Tom emerge at this point, along with shy Emma's uneasiness about being thrust onto the frontline of LGBTQ activism. Newcomer Pellman is lovely in the role, making a charming couple with Hamilton discovery DeBose. But between production designer Jamie Walker McCall blitzing the high school in glowing candy-colored hues and costumer Lou Eyrich giving Emma a series of hip, androgynous style choices, she hardly seems like an outsider. The character was kicked out of her home at 16 when she came out to her parents, but the addition of a supportive, open-minded grandmother (Mary Kay Place) contributes to lower the stakes of Emma finding her voice.

The plot more or less idles with minimal tension through the movie's distended midsection. Barry and Angie take turns mentoring Emma, and Trent misguidedly flaunts his Juilliard credentials with a horrendous acceptance anthem ("Bigotry's not big of me, and it's not big of you") that goes over like a lead balloon at a monster truck rally. There's also a brief, sputtering bit of friction between Dee Dee and Tom when he discovers that the opportunistic New Yorkers' main motivation was publicity.

Watching these actors exercise their musical chops brings sporadic enjoyment even if the cast never quite coheres as an ensemble. Corden, whose limited range becomes more apparent with every screen role, is torn between trying too hard and not hard enough as Barry. "I am as gay as a bucket of wigs!" he declares, in a role played with outrageously over-the-top swish by Brooks Ashmanskas on stage. Perhaps aware of the potential minefield for a straight actor playing a flaming gay stereotype, Corden channels the mannerisms without the joy. It's a flat performance without much heart, even when Tracey Ullman turns up (wearing a wig so heinous it's almost a helmet) to mend bridges as Barry's estranged mother. And Corden reads too young to be Dee Dee's contemporary. This is a role that cries out for Nathan Lane.

Rannells does better despite his character disappearing for much of the action. He resurfaces with "Love Thy Neighbor," one of two consecutive upbeat numbers set in a mall that seems more like a big-city shopping center than part of a provincial town where Kmart is the best fashion option. Key is likable as always, as far as playing the literal straight man allows. And Kidman brings sweet poignancy and understated daffy humor to the aging chorus girl struggling to stay in the game and keep her daytime drinking under control. However, her big song, "Zazz," is designed for a more accomplished mover from the Fosse school, something no amount of camera calisthenics, nimble editing and flashy lighting can disguise.

Murphy is back in Glee territory here, for better or worse, meaning the numbers often strain for exuberance — stage director Casey Nicholaw's choreography goes big and athletic anytime the opportunity arises — and the voices tend toward Auto-Tune uniformity. Only near the end, when Emma takes control of her narrative in the pretty song "Unruly Heart" — given relatively intimate treatment if you ignore her bed levitating and twirling — does the sincerity behind the endeavor make it genuinely moving.

Unlike Everybody's Talking About Jamie, a London stage hit with a comparable plotline also headed to the screen in February, the young characters here play second-fiddle to the spotlight-seeking interlopers. In any case, there's something to be said for the wide reach of a Netflix feature that champions the rights of LGBTQ teens, sharing a message that's easy to endorse even if the delivery tends to grate.  

Production companies: Dramatic Forces, StoryKey Entertainment
Distributor: Netflix (in select theaters Dec. 4, streaming from Dec. 11)
Cast: Meryl Streep, James Corden, Nicole Kidman, Keegan-Michael Key, Andrew Rannells, Jo Ellen Pellman, Ariana DeBose, Kerry Washington, Tracey Ullman, Kevin Chamberlin, Mary Kay Place, Nico Greeth, Logan Riley, Nathaniel J. Potvin, Sofia Deler
Director: Ryan Murphy
Screenwriters: Bob Martin, Chad Beguelin, based on the Broadway musical by Beguelin, Martin, Matthew Sklar
Producers: Ryan Murphy, Alexis Martin Woodall, Adam Anders, Dori Bernstein, Bill Damaschke
Executive producers: Eric Kovtun, Doug Merrified, Caey Nicholaw, Chad Beguelin, Bob Martin, Matthew Sklar, Todd Nenninger, Scott Robertson
Director of photography: Matthew Libatique

Production designer: Jamie Walker McCall
Costume designer: Lou Eyrich
Music: Matthew Sklar, David Klotz
Songs: music by Matthew Sklar, lyrics by Chad Beguelin
Editors: Peggy Tachdjian, Danielle Wang
Choreographer: Casey Nicholaw
Casting: Alexa L. Fogel
Rated PG-13, 131 minutes