Deeply Flawed, Highly Enjoyable: Netflix Film ‘The Prom’ Is a Mixed Bag
Everything that’s wrong with Netflix film The Prom can be traced back to its source material. The 2018 musical — about a troupe of Broadway stars seeking publicity by rallying around a small-town Indiana teen’s fight to take her girlfriend to that year-end high school ritual — is self-congratulatory, not nearly as scathing as it should be against both liberals and conservatives (not to mention self-obsessed celebrities), and triumphantly predetermined.
It’s also — as directed by Ryan Murphy with an all-star cast toplined by Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman, James Corden and Andrew Rannells — pretty entertaining. Granted, I’m predisposed to love a movie musical wherein gays and their advocates prevail over small-town conservatism and prejudice, but when all was said and done, I was put in a tricksy predicament: how to write about a film the critic in me despised yet the viewer in me very much enjoyed. So here goes.
The Hollywood elite as mentioned above — and which also includes Kerry Washington as the conservative PTA chair Mrs. Greene, Keegan-Michael Key as the high school principal and Mary Kay Place as the progressive grandmother to the main protagonist, Emma — aren’t just commensurate pros, they’re inspired. (And, yes, we will talk about James Corden’s much-maligned performance momentarily.) They take two-dimensional constructions — an out-of-touch Broadway doyenne, a perennial chorus-girl waiting for her starring role — and make something of them (often more than what is given to them to play).
The songs in Netflix film The Prom, not one of which I can recall a mere 12 hours after having seen the film, are merely functional by Broadway standards, which doesn’t stop the actors from wringing every last laugh and ounce of pathos from them. Rannells, who knows his way around a funny song thanks to his tenure in The Book of Mormon, gets the best tune here, “Love Thy Neighbor,” wherein his actor-slash-bartender Trent turns religious dogma into a teachable moment for some very backward teenagers, while Kidman funnels her inner Fosse in the Chicago-style piss-take “Zazz.” And Keegan-Michael Key — who knew? — has a plaintive moment with the Act 1 highlight “We Look to You” that’s an ode to escapism and hero-worship, and the start of a seduction between Key and Streep that’s refreshing in a Hollywood film.
“When you’re a kid in theater school,” Key has said, “and your future self came back and said, ‘I just wanted to let you know that in 2020, you’re going to kiss Meryl Streep and be her love interest in a movie,’ you’d be like, ‘Get out of here, lying demon! You’re not real!’ But it was exhilarating, to be honest, and I was waiting for it the entire shoot.”
We all know that Streep is the greatest living actress of her generation … yada yada yada blah blah blah. I’ve never been part of her chorus of admirers — I know this is heresy — but I think she’s amazing in The Prom. She’s a playful performer in musicals, as well as an accomplished singer, and though nothing she does here has the gravitas of her award-winning roles (and would be seriously out of place if it did), she creates a caricature of celebrity that’s both monstrously egomaniacal and touchingly melancholy. Her Dee Dee Allen is as lonely as Norma Desmond and as withering as Violet Crawley, the Dowager Countess of Grantham.
Now, what is there to say about James Corden’s Barry Glickman, the gay Broadway star still nursing his emotional coming out wounds into middle age? Reviewers have not been kind, and many have complained about having a straight actor play a gay role. But it’s not the actor here; it’s the role that’s the stereotype. Could Corden have dialed down the flighty mannerisms and sibilance and whatnot? Probably. (Most of the cast could dial it back, but this is a film where “over-the-top” is the starting line.) Would Rannells have been more “authentic” as a gay Broadway star because Rannells has been a gay Broadway star? Maybe Nathan Lane? Jonathan Groff? That’s a parlor game, but I’m not so sure. Despite his sexuality, Corden has a moment with Streep regarding Barry’s painful coming out that’s emotionally authentic. It’s such a pure cry from the heart that the film momentarily stops in its tracks.
The young cast is game — Jo Ellen Pellman as Emma, especially, comes alive whenever she gets a chance to belt a song — and regardless of how easy it seems to resolve the central conflict (or that there is any doubt it will end in a heartwarming, feel good way), you still root for it to happen. Except for Emma, though, the teenagers really are one-dimensional.
Critics of Netflix film The Prom as a whole have their best argument presented to them courtesy of Murphy. When Emma, rejecting the help of the Broadway stars and uploading a personal song about her trials and tribulations directly to YouTube, begins harmonizing with a chorus of LGBTQ kids discovering her tune, the impact is as aspirational as the film is meant to be. Every single one of those kids — with no backstory or any other screen time — would be deserving of their own, original story.
That’s not the film we have here. The Prom is a glossy, middle-of-the-road Hollywood movie musical that, like Murphy’s groundbreaking TV series Glee, wraps all its life lessons into bite-sized songs and 11th hour changes of heart. (To be fair, Glee was more realistic.) From moment to moment, I disliked it intensely and then found myself laughing or moved or nearly in tears, only to dislike it again a second later. As I said at the outset, the critic in me despised it, but the audience-goer had a good time.