The Prom is a musical about a lesbian high school student in a small town in Indiana who just wants to take her girlfriend to prom. The PTA gets involved and cancels prom for every student. A group of down on their luck actors stumble across the news item and decide it will become their cause to build back their personas and not be seen as such narcissists. When the actors descend, it makes things worse. Everyone learns to be more tolerant in the process of rebuilding. The film stars Meryl Streep, James Corden, Nicole Kidman, Kerry Washington, Keegan-Michael Key, Andrew Rannells, Mary Kay Place, Tracey Ullman, Kevin Chamberlin, Ariana DeBose, and Jo Ellen Pellman. The film is directed by Ryan Murphy and is written by Bob Martin and Chad Beguelin. The film is streaming exclusively on Netflix.
Ryan Murphy productions are always a mixed bag. He's the kind of director who puts out a flashy, impressive, gaudy, and stylish product and The Prom is no exception. What I will never understand about his style is his insistence on camera movement during musical numbers. The wizardry of a musical is the singing and the dancing, so why are we always straining, adjusting, and trying not to be queasy during the singing and dancing? The cuts, the swoops, the closeups on hips, feet, faces, and hands, I just don't understand.
I didn't expect a musical like The Prom to engage in anything too maudlin. I didn't expect it to be anything, but a bright and shiny revue. Though, I didn't expect the shallowness of some of it. The story deals in a heavy theme and one that cuts very close to many in the LGBTQ+ community, but like a lot of stories like it, and especially musicals, it makes it all easy. The resolution is a foregone conclusion by the end of the first big number. There weren't any surprises and I think that's from a lack of focus.
The film and the story suffer greatly for how many characters it has to serve. Traditional musicals are a lot like The Prom, they have lots of characters who get their moment in the sun, but I think other musicals are able to weigh the serving of their large casts to a very central story. The Prom has A, B, and C plots that all pull focus completely from each other despite their service to the larger plot.
As much as I loved Andrew Rannells smarmy, smug, hilarious Trent and his fabulous song about loving thy neighbor or Nicole Kidman's dynamite legs when she's talking about "zazz" or James Corden's great comedic timing, these could have been one character. If all those things were combined into Andrew Rannells' performance it would have made more sense and they would have had a gay actor heaving the emotional heft of the tragic Barry backstory and reconciliation.
Yet, there is a lot to like in that emotional heft, in the quieter moments of contemplation. I liked the main story of Emma trying to make the best of her situation, of not taking it all lying down even though it's hard. Despite it being a little clichéd I still cried at the end and at parts in between. I love seeing people finding themselves and dammit do I love the pageantry of landing a perfect moment.
Where the film truly shines is in the performances. I think Meryl Streep can do no wrong (within reason) and here she's on top of her game. I also loved everything about Andrew Rannells, especially his ridiculous T-shirts. Though, without the strong chemistry between Jo Ellen Pellman and Ariana DeBose, the parts of the film with them that are truly enchanting would not have worked at all. They carry the importance of the story with poise and pathos. They've got incredible talent and charm and every bit of it shows up on the screen.
There is a lot to like about The Prom. The music is fun and engaging, the performances are terrific and the production and costumes are a delight. Yet, the whole of the package didn't work for me. I feel that the adaptation could have used some work, some fine tuning of the narrative and a far less cluttered mind than Ryan Murphy at the helm (The man has a thousand TV shows and movies in production at any one time. It's an insane workload and I think the quality of the individual projects slips because of it.). If you want something that's gooey and gorgeous to look at (when you can see what's going on), then you may enjoy The Prom, but if you want something with a little more depth, I suggest you look elsewhere.