Hats off to Ryan Murphy: The man is consistently contradictory. Just a few weeks after Ratched hit Netflix, his adaptation of the 2018 Broadway musical The Prom arrives to the platform gussied up in a technicolor version of the same worshipful high school nostalgia as Glee, and riddled with the same condescension toward “average” people that has defined so much of his output, from Nip/Tuck to The Politician. Murphy’s fondness for smashing down the walls surrounding certain American institutions and making them available for all to enjoy has never been particularly nuanced, and he directs The Prom with the same bluntness. The film’s ultimate admiration of celebrity is only vaguely tolerable because its concurrent message of inclusivity is theoretically admirable — but must it be delivered by the likes of a thoroughly exhausting, irredeemably self-satisfied James Corden?
The event that inspired the musical The Prom, which ran as a stage musical on Broadway from November 2018 through August 2019 and was supposed to start a national tour next year before COVID-19 changed how we live, became enough of a national-news story that it has its own Wikipedia page: the “2010 Itawamba County School District prom controversy.” Mississippi high school student Constance McMillen’s desire to bring her girlfriend to prom was met with a hostile school board who canceled the prom once the ACLU became involved. The situation dragged on for weeks, and to discuss in too much detail the subsequent actions of bigoted parents and harassing students would give away many of the twists and turns in The Prom, which to some degree follows what actually happened to McMillen. Murphy, in turn, adapts the play fairly closely, enlisting Chad Beguelin and Bob Martin (who worked on the lyrics and book of the play) as screenwriters.
The Prom introduces Emma Nolan (Jo Ellen Pellman), McMillen’s analogue, in an opening scene that makes plain what she is up against. In Edgewater, Indiana, the PTA meeting led by Mrs. Greene (Kerry Washington, continuing her Little Fires Everywhere turn with another against-type role), during which the parents choose to cancel the prom instead of exposing their precious children to their classmate who happens to be a lesbian, is a real-life pit of despair. “We have no choice,” Mrs. Greene sanctimoniously says. Then The Prom pivots us to New York City, where two-time Tony winner Dee Dee Allen (Meryl Streep) and perpetual runner-up Barry Glickman (James Corden) are shocked that their new musical about Eleanor Roosevelt is met with negative reviews. “I put on that wig and those prosthetic teeth and know I’m changing lives,” Dee Dee said to a reporter on the red carpet, and that arrogance is what convinces Dee Dee, Barry, fellow down-on-his-luck actor Trent Oliver (Andrew Rannells), and unemployed Chicago chorus girl Angie Dickinson (Nicole Kidman) to seize Emma’s narrative as an opportunity and march arm in arm down a heavily CGI-ed Broadway to celebrate their philanthropic spirit.
The con, they decide, is to “appear to be decent human beings” by traveling to middle America and injecting themselves into Emma’s fight against the PTA. Each of the four, who varyingly identify as gay or, as Dee Dee puts it, “gay-positive,” has their own motivations. Trent is appearing in a traveling show that will pass through Indiana. Angie is genuinely moved by Emma’s story. Barry is reminded of his own traumatic experience with the prom and wants to give Emma the night he didn’t have. Dee Dee sees a way to bolster her brand and snag herself a third Tony. And so they all swoop into Edgewater (which is shown sometimes as rustically tiny and sometimes as large enough to support a gigantic mall and country club), proudly declare themselves liberal elites in a “hick town,” and align themselves with Emma and her school principal ally Mr. Hawkins (Keegan-Michael Key). “We’re gonna help that little lesbian whether she likes it or not!” is their rallying cry. Of course, because The Prom is a fantasy, there is no real chance of “or not.”
Emma immediately befriends these four adults, going along with their campy antics and performative advice. Does Emma actually have any interest in theater? Unclear! But in typical musical fashion, the lines between reality and stage constantly blur, resulting in moments that run the gamut from enjoyably spunky to deeply torturous.
Emma’s first number, “Just Breathe,” sung as she walks through her high school and observes “Note to self: people suck in Indiana,” is an opportunity for Pellman to step forward into the limelight. As an actress, she’s a winning find whose earnestness strengthens The Prom — she shines in practically every pairing, especially when teamed up with Kidman for “Zazz.” Kidman’s Angie, who has longed for years to play Roxie Hart with no success, delivers attitude advice to Pellman’s Emma with an array of high kicks. And Pellman has nice chemistry with classmate Alyssa (Ariana DeBose), a straight-A student, debate team champion, and cheerleader who is hiding her own secret; their duet “Dance With You” is evocative of a certain groundbreaking romance that Murphy delivered on Glee.
But the issue with the cast’s exuberance — Streep digging into Dee Dee’s flirty vibe with Key’s Mr. Hawkins; Rannells clearly relishing how often Trent self-absorbedly mentions his past training at Juilliard — is how much that papier-mâché’s over many of the film’s strange technical choices (why so many floating cameras?) and the script’s narrative shortcuts. Most confusing is the film’s contrasting messages about individual happiness and communal acceptance. For the most part, The Prom wants to affirm viewers of their moral rightness by insulting the pervasiveness of small-minded cruelty and mocking how fervently people stick to misguided stereotypes. So many of the Broadway actors’ songs lean into this perspective, and to be fair, are some of the film’s best-shot performances. (Rannells’ “Love Thy Neighbor,” in which he chastises Emma’s classmates for their Christianity-excused hypocrisy at the town’s mall, chasing them up and down the escalator and breaking into a dance routine near the mall’s central fountain, is satisfyingly sarcastic.) But The Prom pivots in its final third — did I mention this movie is 133 minutes?! — into a tidy parable about forgiveness, a cloying narrative turn that begs us to pity James Corden, which I cannot, and will not, do.
Certain elements of The Prom can be forgiven if you frame the musical as a fantasy, and if you can accept the superficiality of its happy ending, and if you allow yourself to be swept up in Streep, Kidman, and Key’s enthusiasm, and if you can empathize with Pellman’s Emma and the simplicity of her desire to share a dance with her crush in spite of intolerant bullies who put scissoring teddy bears in her locker. But Corden is the distraction that derails every scene he’s in, and unluckily for us, he’s in many of them. There’s never a sense that Corden is actually becoming Barry Glickman, but rather like he’s doing a Late Late Show bit. Besides a Southern accent that comes and goes, he’s playing a gay character without exuding any believable sexual energy; has no spark with Streep’s Dee Dee, who inexplicably goes from professional rival to close friend; and brings a noticeable disingenuousness to moments that require intense emoting. That final shortcoming is the most damaging, and makes it so neither Barry’s investment in getting Emma to prom nor his decision to reconnect with people from his past leaves much of an impression. There’s too much of Corden to ignore in The Prom, but there isn’t much to like.
“One thing you’ve taught me is how much people enjoy a show,” Emma says to Dee Dee, Barry, Angie, and Trent, and that describes The Prom overall. Hidden by the neon lights, glittering sequins, and A-list cast willing to indulge in Murphy’s hijinks is another project that can’t decide between sincerity and contempt, and that will ultimately leave you unsatisfied.