It’s every few years that Hollywood decides to grab its big hands onto some Broadway hit. Throwing a big budget and the hopes for a lavish spectacle, the results can come mixed; in recent years we’ve gotten an Oscar-nominated financial hit like Les Misérables (which is still quite bad), or we’ve gotten the lustering disaster that is Cats (both of those, actually, are directed by Tom Hooper). Both of those latter productions were legendary successes on the stage, running for long periods of time. So maybe it’s a better idea to just adapt a more modest success like The Prom, which ran on Broadway for about a year, and focuses on a smaller-scale that seemingly doesn’t need all the overblown fireworks. Yet Ryan Murphy, with his adaptation, doesn’t do that. In the broadest sense, the production is about Emma (Jo Ellen Pellman), who just wants a chance to take longtime (and closeted) girlfriend Alyssa Greene (Ariana DeBose) to a dance, but as they live in a conservative Indiana town, the PTA then decides to cancel the prom. It’s from there, in the prominent tradition of Broadway humor, where the self-satisfaction of the theater community is parodied by applying even more self-satisfaction, with Emma’s pivotal moment taken over by a quartet of narcissistic stage folk.
It’s after an opening scene that establishes the aforementioned conundrum, as well as the consoling principal Mr. Hawkins (Keegan-Michael Key) and the forbidding PTA-president mom (Kerry Washington), that the movie cuts to Dee Dee Allen (Meryl Streep) and Barry Glickman (James Corden), who are attempting to recover as their latest musical has flopped terribly. It’s as they commiserate with aging chorus girl Angie Dickinson (Nicole Kidman) and sitcom-star-turned-bartender Trent Oliver (Andrew Rannells), that they learn about Emma’s case and hatch a scheme: They’ll descend upon her Indiana town unsolicited, fight for her rights to get a prom, defeat small-town bigotry, and most importantly gin up some great PR.
The overarching idea of The Prom is to try and attempt to spoof condescending, out-of-touch celebrity activism by conveying it through characters over-exclaiming with would-be zingers. And it holds on to that for a little bit, at least. It’s only within fifteen minutes that The Prom flips its characters’ vanity and tries to make them plumply relatable: It all turns out that everyone of them comes from a small town themselves. And it’s not long after those reveals that the movie must have Keegan-Michael Key sing the praises about the genuine, life-changing magic of theater. And, of course, his appreciation doesn’t come from any local theater group, but by him driving to shows on Broadway in a sequence that seems like it might’ve been produced by a NYC tourism board.
After growing as a prolific TV creator, The Prom is Ryan Murphy’s return to the cinematic landscape and nothing has really changed: He’s still fawn of choppy editing; all to the point that there are moments in this movie where you can’t even tell what time of the day it is — seen especially in a cross-cutting moment between some prom-posals and a dinner date that are at different times of the day and aren’t even related. It also seems that he’s learned from his post-Glee work by having his camera moving as often as possible, in any direction, no matter if it conveys anything at all. The film’s pacing is classic big musical: a bustling opening of introductions, followed by a tight second half that gives each actor a “showstopping” turn in the spotlight. The only one that comes close to that is Rannells, who holds court in the local mall for a song that sees him amusingly trying to convince teens to chill out rather than riling up their parents. Kidman gets much less with a Fosse-esque number where she explains the virtues of “zazz,” while Corden finds yet another facet in holding the title as cinema’s preeminent nuisance in a subplot that’s all about forcing a mawkish emotional breakthrough.
Yet it’s through all this that you begin to wonder, “where’s Emma?” For a little bit she sort of grows close to Kidman’s Angie, but for a movie that’s ostensibly an earnest tribute to the life-changing power of acceptance, The Prom doesn’t seem especially interested in accepting Emma as an individual person and-or character. Instead, Pellman (in her feature debut performance) spends most of her screen-time grinning in delighted shock of the celebs around her; even her relationship to their opportunism is passive and incidental, but then again that’s pretty much everything about her. Any one of those pesky little things like character traits are tossed aside instead for attempting to assure the audience that minds will get changed, hearts will get melted, and heartfelt confessional songs posted online will immediately go viral. On stage, contrivances of that nature might seem less glaring and go down much easier (although the songs being so forgettable can’t be helpful). It’s at one point in the film that Streep’s Dee Dee poses the question of “Is this what not failing feels like?” The answer is: Well, no. This is what fizzy, phony nonsense looks and feels like. For its very few moments of fluttering whimsy, The Prom matches them all with desperate, self-satisfaction; molding itself into a vat of gooey, cheesy slop that strains into being annoyingly surfacy.
The Prom will be available to stream on Netflix on December 11