This star-studded stage-to-screen musical drowns out its good intentions with over-the-top pageantry, a self-satisfied attitude and the wrong focus.
UPDATE, December 11, 2020: The Prom is screening in select cinemas in Melbourne, and is available to stream via Netflix.
A word of warning to filmmakers eager to make the next big on-screen musical: cast James Corden at your peril. It may now seem like a lifetime ago that Cats proved a gobsmacking catastrophe, but that 2019 movie's horrors are impossible to shake — and while Corden's latest, The Prom, thankfully doesn't resort to repeating the word 'jellicle' over and over again to try to convince the world that it means something, it still follows in the feline-focused flick's paw prints as this year's all-singing, all-dancing misfire. The two films' common star is grating and relies upon gratuitous overacting in both features. He's hardly alone in bombing and flailing, though. In The Prom's case, a 2018 Broadway success with an important message about acceptance and being true to one's self has been transformed into an over-long star vehicle, as well as a movie that can't see past its sequin-studded pageantry and smug attitude to actually practise what it preaches.
Miscast from the get-go, Corden plays Barry, a Broadway veteran playing second fiddle to multi-Tony-winning drama diva Dee Dee (Meryl Streep, Little Women) in Eleanor!, a new production about former US First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Initially, the pair is on top of the world after the show's opening night — but then the reviews start piling in and piling on. Distraught from the critical savaging as they drown their sorrows with perennial chorus girl Angie (Nicole Kidman, The Undoing) and Juilliard-trained actor-turned-sitcom lead-turned bartender Trent (Andrew Rannells, The Boys in the Band), they concoct a plan to get back in the showbiz industry's good graces. Scrolling through Twitter, Angie spies a news story about Indiana teenager Emma (feature debutant Jo Ellen Pellman), whose high school has just completely cancelled the prom because she wanted to bring her girlfriend. As quick as a burst of confetti, Barry, Dee Dee, Trent and Angie are on a Godspell tour bus to America's midwest to rally against this injustice and whip themselves up some flattering publicity.
In the screenplay written by Bob Martin and Chad Beguelin, both of whom worked on the original stage production, this is all meant to be a joke: that fading, has-been and never-were celebrities shallowly and calculatingly try to use one young woman's horrific plight for their own gain, that is. But The Prom likes the gag so much that it misguidedly decides that favouring stars over substance is the best approach in general. No one is disparaging Streep, Kidman, Rannells or Corden's fame or status, or that of their fellow well-known costars Keegan-Michael Key (Playing with Fire) and Kerry Washington (Little Fires Everywhere). While Corden is terrible, some of his high-profile colleagues have their moments — a flame-haired Streep eats the often neon-hued scenery and loves every bite, for example. When there's a tale to be told about an ostracised queer teen who is cruelly rejected by her school's Parents and Teachers' Association and her peers, and who sees her quest to simply be treated like everyone else become a national scandal, though, that story is far more interesting than the arrival of a self-centred quartet of blow-ins from New York.
Perhaps balancing the two parts of The Prom's narrative works on the stage; on the screen, Emma seems as much of an afterthought to director Ryan Murphy (Eat Pray Love, plus TV's Pose and American Horror Story) as she is to Dee Dee and company. Both the movie and the characters it chooses to focus on have their own senses of worth pumped up by even feigning to care about something else, but the fact that the film and its main players can all convince themselves they're great doesn't mean they can do the same with those watching. Again, this terrain is designed to fuel the feature's main gags. Case in point: we're supposed to laugh heartily and knowingly when Dee Dee interrupts the latest PTA meeting — where Key, as a caring principal, is battling Washington, who plays the conservative parent leading the charge against Emma — with a song called 'It's Not About Me'. Alas, almost everything about The Prom constantly falls so flat that its attempt at self-referential humour is as hackneyed as the concept that a bunch of celebs can solve homophobia with a few ditties, a splash of dancing, and some fabulous outfits and decor.
When Rannells' Trent heads to the local mall and attempts to do just that on one occasion — pointing out that Emma's schoolmates are picking and choosing which parts of the bible they're faithful about upholding, all via singing and breaking out fancy footwork on an escalator — it does give The Prom one of its best moments. The scene in question also emphasises how far the film is from many better, smarter, savvier-executed musicals on-screen and on-stage, however. Rannells has sung about faith and its contradictions before as an original Broadway cast member in the brutally clever The Book of Mormon, a comparison The Prom really shouldn't be trying to conjure up in viewers' heads.
With Glee, Murphy made an entire teen-centric TV show that nodded to pop culture influences it could never live up to, so The Prom really just sees the filmmaker do more of the same but worse. That said, when the film actually spends time with Emma, her secret girlfriend Alyssa (Hamilton's Ariana DeBose) and even their anti-LGBTQIA+ classmates — following in Glee's footsteps in another way — it's a better movie. But the temptation to value flash over meaning, and to think that simply saying 'discrimination is bad, here's some glitter', never subsidies. Although it's shot by the acclaimed Matthew Libatique (an Oscar-nominee for Black Swan and A Star Is Born), the film's continually, needlessly and irritatingly circling cinematography captures The Prom's struggles perfectly, because it's too caught up in shiny things, recognisable faces and disposable songs to let everything that should matter, including its message, have any real impact.
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