The Prom (2020)

My birthday is on December 27th, and every year for as long as I can remember I have gone to see a musical in London’s West End to celebrate. Obviously, this year, that tradition has to be put on pause. With no physical stage productions to herald my 31st year on this earth, I have instead turned to Netflix for my musical fix. On the surface of things, Ryan Murphy’s The Prom looked like it was going to have everything I was looking for.

Adapted from the 2018 Tony nominated Broadway musical of the same name, The Prom tells the story of four washed up Broadway performers (Meryl Streep, James Corden, Nicole Kidman and Andrew Rannells) who, in search of good PR, travel to small town Indiana to protest for Emma Nolan (Jo Ellen Pellman), a lesbian high schooler who has been banned from attending her prom.

Here’s the thing. The Prom has a tonne of heart and the right intentions in the right places, but there is just something that doesn’t quite work about this adaptation. This is a story that carries a lot of thematic weight, wrapped up in a very sparkly and campy package, and this leads to some things working and others falling short of their target. On the campy, fun side of things, the film is solid. Lots of laughs, lots of classic musical razzle dazzle, lots of American teen high school stuff that is always entertaining to look at. It’s much more Glee than Grease, but we are dealing with Ryan Murphy, after all.

Where things start to go south, for me personally, is in the strength of the songs and the integrity of the story’s more serious, emotional moments. Crucially, only a handful of the film’s 18 songs are memorable, and that isn’t a good enough hit rate for me to be honest. There is always a boost of mood when ‘everything comes together’ in classic musical climax fashion, but it feels like The Prom’s best parts are very much stacked in the first half, leaving an uphill climb to the end.

What I’m realising as we see more and more stage to film musical adaptations is that I’m just more willing to forgive short cut character development on the stage than on the big screen. The Prom asks a lot of its audience in the final third, attempting a range of redemption arcs for characters that have spent the entire time being abhorrent bigots. I know it all makes for a happy ending, but as a gay viewer I tend to get really tired of queer protagonists being so willing to forgive and forget in a matter of seconds. Some of the things that Emma is forced to go through in this narrative are truly horrible, and whilst it is obviously the more open hearted direction to take, it always feels like a bit of a kick in the teeth.

The cast of The Prom highlight the both the very best and the very worst that the film has to offer. As two time Tony winner Dee Dee Allen, Meryl Streep is as fun and magnetic as you would expect her to be. Out of the core ‘adult’ group, there is no doubting that Streep has the best songs, the best character moments, the best overall role to play with. Her numbers, especially the ones in the first half of the movie, are some of the most catchy, and honestly I’d say that Streep alone is reason enough to give the film at least one inquisitive watch.

On the other end of the spectrum we have James Corden as Dee Dee’s stage partner and friend Barry Glickman. There’s no getting away from it, Corden is just woefully miscast in this role. His American accent is distractingly bad and he simply doesn’t display the dramatic chops required in the more emotional moments of the story. I’m not saying Corden as an actor is plain bad, because I’ve seen him be great before (especially on the stage), and in the midst of the musical numbers he is completely fine, but overall this performance just didn’t cut it.

Nicole Kidman and Andrew Rannells make up the rest of the Broadway gang, and whilst Rannells seems to fit in his role very well, the casting of Kidman for what is essentially a very small supporting part looks and feels really strange. She’s barely there, and the one solo number she is given is arguably the worst in the entire film.

It’s a case of good and bad once again for the the leading lesbian couple in the story. As Emma, Jo Ellen Pellman proves to be a really endearing presence, a wonderful performance in what is her feature film debut. As her closeted cheerleader girlfriend Alyssa Greene, Ariana DeBose isn’t quite as impressive. Granted, the nature of her character means that we don’t connect to her as much as Emma, but besides a great singing voice I didn’t find myself overly impressed with DeBose. Crucially, the chemistry between the two was almost non existent.

Overall, The Prom has to go down as a big disappointment for me. Knowing the show and knowing Ryan Murphy, I was fully expecting the over the top camp and the moments of genuine fun, but these fun moments are few and far between in a film that doesn’t need to be over two hours long. There is a lot of fat that could have been cut, and the movie just doesn’t manage to balance its fun factor with its more serious themes. Perhaps something to throw on in the background over the holidays, but don’t expect to be anything other than a stand out performance from Meryl Streep and some occasional pleasantries.

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