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Netflix Review: The Prom

January 3, 2021

By John Corrado

★★ (out of 4)

Ryan Murphy’s flashy gay rights musical The Prom, which is based on the Broadway musical of the same name, is a prime example of a film that has some enjoyable moments, but feels like an uneven mishmash overall.

It tells the story of Emma Nolan (Jo Ellen Pellman), a lesbian girl in Edgewater, Indiana whose school cancels the prom instead of allowing her to attend with her girlfriend (Ariana DeBose). But it’s more the story of two washed up Broadway stars, Dee Dee Allen (Meryl Streep) and Barry Glickman (James Corden), who decide to take up her cause as a way to rehabilitate their careers following the disastrous reviews for their latest show.

Dee Dee and Barry team up with Angie Dickinson (Nicole Kidman), a chorus girl who dreams of being a leading lady, and Trent Oliver (Andrew Rannells), a wannabe Broadway star who is stuck working as a bartender. Together, the four actors travel to Indiana to throw their support behind Emma and save her prom, but the trip is really about boosting their egos and social status through what essentially amounts to virtue signalling.

The film’s main villain is PTA head Mrs. Greene (Kerry Washington) who, instead of making the prom inclusive, decides to pull the plug on the event instead so she won’t have to deal with a discrimination case. One of the heroes is school principal Tom Hawkins (Keegan-Michael Key), a big fan of Dee Dee Allen’s, who tries to find a way to organize a prom that Emma can attend. What follows is a lot of singing and dancing, with a boisterous if somewhat preachy message about acceptance.

While Pellman is able to handle the song numbers, she also doesn’t really have the acting range to pull off the leading role. But her character gets sidelined for stretches of the film, anyways. The main draw of The Prom is the all-star supporting cast. Streep has fun chewing up the scenery, going full camp with her portrayal of an egotistical actress. While Kidman doesn’t have nearly as much to do, she is good in her scenes here. Rannells also makes the most of his role, including a big production number in a shopping mall that is fun to watch.

But Corden, on the other hand, feels miscast here, and the straight actor’s performance often feels like a caricature of a gay person. Barry is presented in a highly stereotyped way, (“I’m gay as a bucket of wigs,” he exclaims at one point, “a bucket of them”), and it seems like Corden is stuck doing some sort of outdated and borderline offensive comedy routine. I think the character’s emotional scenes, where he talks about being rejected by his family after coming out, would have felt far more genuine if they had been played by an actor who is gay in real life.

Now I don’t think there is a hard and fast rule about straight actors playing gay, or vice versa, and some of my favourite performances in queer movies have admittedly come from straight actors. But, at the same time, if you have a character who is this flamboyant and this stereotyped, I do think it helps to have an actor who is actually gay to breathe more life into them. I can imagine someone like Billy Porter doing wonders with this role.

Take, for example, Dan Levy’s scene-stealing supporting performance in the recent lesbian holiday romance Happiest Season. It was a role that could have easily just been the stereotypical “gay best friend,” but Levy, who is out in real life, brought humour and heart to the role in a way that made the character feel real instead of like a caricature. Corden, on the other hand, falls firmly into the latter camp. Murphy deserves credit for utilizing a completely gay cast in his recent Netflix production of The Boys in the Band, which makes his choice to cast Corden in this role even more confusing.

It’s not really a stretch to say that The Prom often plays like an extended episode of Glee, the high school musical series that put Murphy on the map. There are some fun musical numbers, with songs that range from catchy to kind of forgettable. But the film is poorly paced at over two hours, with the narrative beats often feeling like they are coming at the wrong moments. Murphy’s approach to the material also doesn’t really feel cinematic, and seems stuck somewhere between feeling like a filmed version of a live show and a TV production.

When I got to the credits, I was actually surprised to see that The Prom was shot by cinematographer Matthew Libatique, as it lacks much of his usual vibrancy. Libatique did wonders shooting the live music scenes in A Star is Born, which should have made him an ideal fit for a full-on musical, but his work on The Prom fails to recapture the mix of intimacy and live-wire energy that he brought to that film. While he is working with a candy-coloured visual aesthetic, the film looks sort of flat.

I’m also not sure if the story of a lesbian girl wanting to bring her girlfriend to prom should have been told through the lens of narcissistic Broadway stars learning to be less selfish, but I digress. For what it’s worth, The Prom is a splashy and mostly well meaning film, and one that is often easily entertaining while it’s on. But it’s got a few too many things to nitpick about it to offer a completely enthusiastic recommendation.

The Prom is now streaming exclusively on Netflix.

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