Ryan Murphy’s film adaptation of the Broadway musical The Prom is a strange artifact from another time. Though it debuted in 2016 and hit Broadway in 2018, it feels like flotsam from the Obama-era, something from a less contentious, less overtly divisive time when “NYC Broadway liberals” versus “small-town Midwest bigots” could be played for laughs and not as a bedazzled reminder of the devastating schism in our country. A line like “This isn’t America, it’s Indiana” falls flat in a world where the idea of “two Americas” has become so literal and damaging. Playwrights Bob Martin and Chad Beguelin adapt their own book—which they co-wrote with Matthew Sklar, from a story by Jack Viertel—for the film, which Murphy directs. I’ve seen Cats, so this isn’t the worst movie musical I’ve ever seen, but it’s far from the best.
The Prom opens with Broadway stars Dee Dee Allen (Meryl Streep) and Barry Glickman (James Corden, wildly miscast) attending the premiere of their latest show, Eleanor, a musical about Eleanor Roosevelt. Panned by The New York Times, it is an instant flop, and Dee Dee and Barry are specifically singled out for being so out of touch they can’t inhabit altruistic characters like the Roosevelts. Determined to change their public image, Dee Dee and Barry latch onto the first cause celebre they can find—the plight of an Indiana teen, Emma (Jo Ellen Pellman) whose high school prom was cancelled rather than allow her to take a girl to the dance. Sensing injustice and a chance to make it all about them, Dee Dee and Barry go to Indiana to rally around Emma. They are accompanied by a career chorus girl, Angie (Nicole Kidman), and an out-of-work Julliard grad, Trent (Andrew Rannells), for the thinnest of reasons.
I will give The Prom this: it isn’t Cats. It isn’t physically repugnant to look at, it doesn’t make me want to die, and the musical numbers are kind of enjoyable. They are at least shot in a way where you can mostly appreciate the choreography, though Murphy does insist on too many cuts and medium shots that cut off dancers mid-step—just show us the dancers dancing! It’s not that hard! Still, it’s WAY better than the awful cinematography in Cats. (The Prom succeeds mostly by not being Cats.) And while I don’t remember most of the songs, I do remember the one Nicole Kidman sings, “Zazz”, because it’s kind of catchy and also Kidman is really giving it her all and nailing those Fosse-style jazz hands.
But The Prom is too weird to work. It feels so out of step it’s disorienting, like missing a tread on the stairs. I can only assume it’s supposed to be satire and that it plays differently live than it does on film, because what is on film does not work at all. It’s wildly condescending, and also the kind of movie that insists we can overcome prejudice if we just point out inconsistencies in the Bible to religious people. (If only it were THAT easy!) Kerry Washington plays an uptight conservative PTA mom who would rather torpedo her daughter’s prom that let an out lesbian take a girl to the dance. Her rival is the school principle, Tom (Keegan-Michael Key), who sees an opportunity to turn the prom debacle into a civil rights case—whether Emma wants to be the subject of said case or not. Also, Tom has a romance with Dee Dee that is completely unbelievable because Streep and Key have the opposite of chemistry. They are actively repelling each other in their shared scenes.
Fans of musicals and people who have desperately missed Broadway this year will probably find some joy in The Prom, but I cannot imagine this appealing to anyone else. Jo Ellen Pellman practically wills the film to life herself, but the trio of A-list film stars at the heart of the story are too real-life glamorous to play a bunch of pathetic has-beens clinging to relevancy by hijacking a young woman’s coming of age moment. It probably would have worked better had the leads all been played by “that guy/gal” actors—people we recognize but can’t name, people without headlining gigs of their own. But even then the tone problem would linger, as in-jokes about actors and Broadway land with a thud next to overripe cultural criticism aimed at Indiana. If you can just focus on Jo Ellen Pellman and tune literally everything else about The Prom out, you can maybe cut through all that to find the kernel of the film that works, but boy do you have to work hard to get there.
The Prom is streaming on Netflix from today.