Ryan Murphy’s bajillionth project for Netflix adapts the Broadway musical to spectacular effect, even if the spectacle wallpapers over its lack of substance.
The Prom, the latest entry in Ryan Murphy’s incessant takeover of Netflix, follows a group of down-and-out Broadway stars (played by Meryl Streep, James Corden, Nicole Kidman, and Andrew Rannells) as they try to resurrect their waning careers with some good PR. The cause that these actors choose is that of Emma Nolan (Jo Ellen Perlman), a teenager in a small town in Indiana who wants to attend her school’s prom with her girlfriend, but the PTA won’t allow it. The group decides to charge into this small town and force them to have an inclusive prom. What ensues is a shallow but sweet musical about fighting for the chance to love — fitting for an adaptation of a whimsical, if lightweight, 2016 Broadway musical.
Like most Murphy projects of late (especially those adaptations of acclaimed plays), this film has a star-studded cast. The standout of the down-on-their-luck actors is Streep, who plays Dee Dee Allen, a beloved veteran of the stage whose star is waning on Broadway due to her spiky personality. Streep is charismatic and self-aware, playing up the parallels between herself and Allen, constantly making you love her even when she’s being a terrible person. She also has electric chemistry with the charming Keegan-Michael Key, who plays a school principal who’s one of her biggest fans (and a supporter of the inclusive prom).
Then we have Corden as out-and-proud gay actor Barry Glickman, who, like Allen, has been hit with a slew of bad reviews based on his narcissism. It’s tough to say what he’s going for here; at points, he descends into a grotesque collection of stereotypes about lisping effeminate gay men, with a questionable accent that doesn’t hold for more than two minutes at a time. It makes you wonder why he couldn’t just be a Brit who moved over to the States.
When Corden dials things down to his normal level of camp, he’s actually pretty great, especially when paired with Perlman as her surrogate gay uncle. There’s something really sweet about the way he plays this man desperately trying to give her the childhood he could never have – even if Corden struggles to sell the more dramatic moments.
At the centre of it all is Perlman, who shows up with plenty of heart and endearing personality. She’s also one of the strongest singers out of the cast, her vocals always finding that balance between power and emotion. Unfortunately, we get nowhere near enough time with her, making her feel more like a play-thing for these actors which the script (adapted by Chad Beguelin and Bob Martin, who wrote the play alongside Matthew Sklar) fixates on, rather than a person with agency.
On the whole, the rest of the cast is pretty good: Kidman is fantastic as always, somehow selling you on the idea that she could never make it out of the chorus and into the spotlight. Rannells is pretty funny as the obnoxious actor who can’t stop mentioning he went to Julliard. All the teens feel straight out of Glee, but are all pretty fun.
When Corden dials things down to his normal level of camp, he’s actually pretty great.
As a movie musical, The Prom works well enough. Most of Beguelin, Martin, and Sklar’s songs aren’t groundbreaking, but they’re fun and witty enough to keep you entertained. There’s an earnest camp to the music that’s infectious enough to draw a smile or two out of even the most skeptical viewer. “Barry’s Going to the Prom” or “Unruly Heart” might even make you reach for the tissues. The grand dance numbers certainly help, precisely choreographed by Casey Nicholaw and lovingly shot by Matthew Libatique.
Frustratingly, The Prom runs into the problem that comes with most Ryan Murphy projects – he’s far too focused on aesthetics and not enough on substance. The film tries to make the point that “liberal coastal elites” don’t understand the lives of the people in small towns and more conservative states. But the critique never really sticks; it feels like both the script and Murphy are too entranced with stardom and glamour of Broadway to meaningfully engage with the issues they claim to be addressing.
This is probably most glaring when there’s an entire song performed by Key about how Broadway makes the lives of everyday people tolerable. Such a passionately reverent song for Broadway (something largely financially inaccessible to working-class people) seems incredibly out of place in a film nominally about these “coastal elites” being taken down a peg.
The Prom’s shallowness also carries over to its understanding of queerness and homophobia. While we do get glimpses of the real violence queer people experience on a daily basis, it’s largely presented as a series of individual misunderstandings that can (literally) be solved with a song, rather than oppressive systemic violence.
The film is littered with “Born This Way and “It Gets Better” narratives that largely fall flat. There’s also a real lack of intersectionality: there no trans people with lines and few queer people of colour. If this was released a decade ago it would be considered very progressive, but in 2020 its queer politics feel far too safe. Simply put, we need something more than just liberation narratives for Midwestern cis white gays.
In spite of its issues, it’s hard to deny the earnest sincerity and spectacle of The Prom. It’s got great performances, glamorous outfits and fun songs, which is really all Murphy and co. want to provide. If you’re looking to dive into the corny magic of musical theatre for a couple of hours, there are worst things to throw on Netflix.
The Prom is currently streaming on Netflix.