Watching Ryan Murphy’s star-studded, candy-colored and slightly gooey version of the Broadway musical The Prom, one intellectually understands the director’s decision to both replace the entire Broadway cast with (mostly) A-list Hollywood stars and employ his now-trademark “more is more” style to this essentially simple material. As an out gay man, Murphy wanted to attract the largest audience possible to this timely tale of LGBTQ acceptance (and self-acceptance). On that front, he has probably succeeded.
However, emotionally – as well as for the sake of Bob Martin, Chad Beguelin and Matthew Sklar’s utterly charming book and score – one can’t help but wish that Murphy had just shot a performance of the Broadway show and simply let fate take its course! (And in doing so, introduced the rest of the world to the talents of the peerless Beth Leavel and Brooks Ashkmansas.)
Unlike many stage-to-screen adaptations, the film’s plot mostly hews to the show’s storyline (with a saccharine detour or two). Trying to gain some positive publicity after being savaged by the critics in their latest Broadway outing, uber-diva Dee Dee Allen (Meryl Streep) and best bud Barry Glickman (James Corden) – accompanied by longtime chorus-girl pal Angie (a game if underused Nicole Kidman) and has-been actor-turned-waiter Trent (a perfectly smarmy Andrew Rannells) – travel to a small Iowa town where a young lesbian named Emma (Jo Ellen Pellman) is being denied permission to attend her high school prom.
It’s not just her fellow students who are causing trouble, it’s mostly officious PTA President Mrs. Greene (Kerry Washington in full Olivia Pope mode) – who is unaware her own daughter, Alyssa (a too-mature Ariana DeBose, who nevertheless makes the most of her screen time) is actually Emma’s girlfriend. A little extra backstory might have helped with this subplot, especially given Washington’s natural intelligence and the color-blind casting (which doesn’t entirely work, to be painfully honest.)
One of The Prom’s smartest observations is the almost universal idea that being a celebrity will make everything better. It doesn’t. Indeed, it takes a lot of not-so-hard-earned life lessons, some from besotted high school principal Tom Hawkins (an excellent Keegan-Michael Key), before Barry and Dee Dee actually do some good for the sake of doing good.
Of course, the biggest question here isn’t how the film will end (happily!). It’s whether Meryl Streep can ever do any wrong? Well, she was very wrong not to sue her wig designer, who (to quote one of the film’s lines) makes her look like “an aging drag queen.” And there are more than a few flashes of Miranda Priestly, not to mention Patti LuPone, in her Dee Dee, causing the character to drift into caricature. (It has to be noted that Streep’s singing voice sounds much stronger than usual.)
Still, Streep smartly locates the small-town girl who turned herself into a superstar, letting us see the kind-hearted person buried behind the pancake makeup and designer fashions. As a result, this consummate actress ultimately crafts a portrait of an aging single woman that is truly multidimensional and occasionally heartbreaking. Yep, Streep wins again!
Pellman, in her first big-screen role, is a warm, winning presence, but her Emma seems from the get-go to be a bit too self-assured to need anyone’s help, never mind these nattering nabobs. As a result, there’s no real arc to her journey anymore, even if the material insists on painting one on with a thick brush (especially in a late-in-the-film scene that smacks directly of Dear Evan Hansen).
And then there’s James Corden. I don’t understand why Murphy (who used eight gay actors for the recent The Boys in the Band) chose a straight actor to play what was written (on stage at least) as an ultra-flamboyant gay man. Still, that choice wouldn’t be quite so troubling if Corden’s Barry were remotely interesting. Instead, he’s little more than cinematic Wonder Bread, and his chemistry with Streep (or anyone else) is essentially non-existent.
Flaws aside, this Prom isn’t one you’ll actually mind being invited to; in fact, you may well end up enjoying yourself. But, unlike many a real prom, it’s not exactly a night (or movie) to remember for years – or even days – to come.