Not only should Ryan Murphy not get invited; he should be forced to repeat senior year.
I remember watching an episode of AMC’s Backstory on Myra Breckinridge, the notorious flop starring Raquel Welch, John Huston, Mae West and Rex Reed (I know, right?!) based on the controversial Gore Vidal novel. In the episode, when asked about working with the legendary West, Reed replied that the star didn’t care about what was happening with the future bomb as long as she got her musical numbers in, which she did. It appears Ryan Murphy felt the same way about directing duties on The Prom, the feature film adaptation of the hit Broadway musical, which he’s adapted for Netflix as part of his never ending production deal. Like West, Murphy (who has actually shown he can deliver a solid film) is more concerned with songs and choreography than he is with the staging of scenes, the interplay between characters and the actual exchanging of ideas. I suppose even all of the could be excused if Murphy knew something about how to bring a movie musical to the screen with flair and panache. As the final results show, however, he does not.
In The Prom, a group of Broadway folk, including Tony-winning diva Dee Dee (Meryl Streep), aging chorus girl Angie (Nicole Kidman), gay leading man Barry (James Corden) and in-between shows bartender Trent (Andrew Rennells) decide the state of their careers could use some rejuvenation. After hearing about Indiana high school teen Emma (Jo Ellen Pellman), who was blocked from attending the senior prom with her closeted girlfriend Alyssa (Ariana de Bose), the group decides to head to the midwest and lend the teen their support in the hopes of generating some flattering PR for themselves. When they get there, they encounter the principal/Dee Dee fanboy Tom (Keegan-Michael Key) and Mrs. Greene (Kerry Washington), the closed-minded head of the PTA intent on stopping them at whatever cost.
What doesn’t work about The Prom? Well, to be fair not everything; just everything that should work. Visually, this is an ugly movie. For all it’s colors, elaborate sets and sequined costumes, the film is such a total assault on the eyes, it should come with vision goggles. The palate I suppose makes sense since there’s hardly a moment when The Prom is allowed to forget its Broadway ancestry. Every other minute feels so stagey and artificial, you almost expect a burst of glitter to accompany every phony hand and arm gesture made by each character. Just like the the theatre people in the film do, Murphy begins to forget about the teenage girls at the center and decides he’d rather shoot an overlong scene of Streep and Corden watching My Best Friend’s Wedding or see where the budding romance between Dee Dee and Tom goes (I’m not kidding), including a decidedly unromantic first date at an Applebee’s.
As for the songs themselves, well it’s hard to tell if they’re actually any good since Murphy stages them with the rhythm and musical joie de vivre of a football coach with chalkboard. From the mall takeover of “Love Thy Neighbor” (in which Rannells launches into gospel territory), the monster truck rally-set “The Acceptance Song,” and the extra forehead-slapping “Barry’s Going to Prom,” which is bad on a number of levels (not least of all Corden’s depressing belief in the material), The Prom is easily one of the ugliest movie musicals ever made.
It may surprise readers at this point to discover that (apart from some performances), there are parts of The Prom which I liked, or rather didn’t hate as much as others. Streep’s first solo number, which sees Dee Dee crash a PTA meeting upon the group’s arrival, introduces her with a song called “It’s Not About Me,” leading to some genuinely funny moments between the character and an impromptu bewildered audience. Almost as effective is Angie’s big number, “Zazz,” in which she aims to instill confidence in a despondent Emma by making her sing and dance. It’s an admittedly sweet moment and the two ladies have enough chemistry to actually sell the scene’s idea of the healing and inspiring power of song. Finally, by the time the big finale, “It’s Time to Dance” rolls around, there’s enough rousing energy to go with it, but that’s only because most of what’s come before has been so spiritually lifeless.
In prepping for this review, I sought out one of the songs on the soundtrack for a re-listen. One song led to another, and another, and another until I went through the entire album. It’s here when I realized that the songs on their own do explore the story’s themes and give the characters proper justice as the additions of “Alyssa Greene” and “Unruly Heart” prove meaningful enough to stand out in ways they simply never could have in Murphy’s incapable hands.
The women of The Prom are outstanding. Streep’s gift for both singing and comedy have been more than proven at this point and everyone watching (even those who hate the movie more than I do) will agree she’s its strongest element. Kidman likewise turns in winning work as a dancer whose optimism hasn’t been dampened by decades waiting for her turn to shine. Pellman and de Bose are both delights and each provide The Prom with an ethereal quality and as much groundedness as Murphy can sustain interest for before moving onto another mishandled number. Washington makes for a credible, realistic antagonist, even if her character is never explored beyond a series of quick 30 second scenes.
The men, however, aren’t as lucky. Key is severely miscast to the point of confusion, making us wonder why Murphy didn’t call Kevin Kline instead. If Washington’s role was shortchanged, Rennell’s may as well not even have existed in the first place. Little care or attention is given to the character of Trent, that one has to wonder why the actor even bothered to show up, especially since his main song is perhaps the worst of the bunch. He gets off easier than Corden tho, who leans into every gay stereotype with such abandon (undoubtedly encouraged by Murphy), it borders on appalling. Corden is a talented guy and his popular talk show proves this. How then can he justify such horrid jokes and cliches that would be thrown out of the writer’s room on his show, but which he delivers here with the saddest of commitment?
Those who know me know that I’m not a fan of Ryan Murphy. As perhaps the most prominent member of the gay community in Hollywood, whose power seemingly knows no bounds, his platform is a valuable one. Therefore it’s both mind boggling and infuriating to have seen him squander it so thoroughly with the likes of his shows, many of which feature gay characters indulging in behavior which either reinforce gay generalizations (American Horror Story) or allow him to film homosexual fantasies (Hollywood). When he does use his voice to highlight the community in important ways (The Normal Heart, Pose, The Boys in the Band), it works. But overall, every Ryan Murphy production is an exercise in the kind of gay shallowness and dismissiveness that does nothing to further the culture. The Prom is no different and likely won’t change anyone’s minds since the minds who do need changing will find the whole affair too loud and garish to even give it a look. There is something to be said, however, for the power of representation in any form and the fact that a mainstream film of this subject exists featuring the likes of Streep and Kidman is undeniably huge. But when the movie itself ends up doing little more for the cause than what Dee Dee and the gang think they’re doing when they turn up in Indiana looking for their hotel suites, it all ends up being a colorful, poppy waste.