Ryan Murphy adapted Broadway's semi-hit musical The Prom for Netflix with the best of intentions — he said, at a post-screening Zoom Q&A Sunday, that he was moved by the idea of bringing an LGBTQ-positive message to a massive, global platform.
Unfortunately, he chose a creaky vehicle, one that asks us to consider that homophobes might not be sooo bad, except for their homophobia (imagine that message being delivered on race?), and then chooses the wrong actor to hammer the message home.
With generic music and lyrics by Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin and a treacly book by Beguelin and Bob Martin, the show follows a group of narcissistic Broadway performers on their journey to garner good PR by helping a lesbian student (newcomer Jo Ellen Pellman) and her secret girlfriend (Ariana DeBose) in Indiana, where their school's PTA has gone to cruel lengths to exclude them from the senior prom. Much of the show is about lampooning selfish motives and self-centered world views, which plays as if to say that do-gooders, exactly like virulently anti-gay forces are, you should pardon the expression, bad actors, too.
The Broadway troupe is headed up by Patti LuPone-style diva Dee Dee Allen, played with gusto by Meryl Streep, who is in full She-Devil/Death Becomes Her/Mamma Mia mode, appropriately chewing the scenery. Her “It's Not About Me” is one of the few funny sequences. Unfortunately, instead of being happy with one over-the-top star, the show calls for the others — flamboyant Barry Glickman (James Corden), self-important Trent Oliver (Andrew Rannells) and also-ran chorus girl Emma Nolan (Nicole Kidman) — to react in kind, leaving little room for humanity. That, plus the town's Footloose-depth cast of characters (the closeted girlfriend's mom, played by a thoroughly unconvincing Kerry Washington, is of course the head of the anti-gay PTA) makes The Prom feel giddily disconnected from reality even as it strives to address the very real issue of intolerance.
Not everything is bad, but the things that are bad are staggering, starting with Corden. In 2020, it should not be required that every gay role be played by a gay man (Paul Bettany is winning in Uncle Frank, as just one example), but it's undeniably weird that gay Ryan Murphy snatched gay Barry Glickman from gay Broadway actor Brooks Ashmanskas in order to let straight James Corden lisp his way through the part.
Yes, movies need stars, but The Prom already had Streep and Kidman, was Corden really necessary? His is not the worst performance of the 21st century (as Vanity Fair's hyperbolic critic declared, looking for social media traction), but it's one-note and the backstory is disturbing, especially considering the movie is all about being your true self.
Corden's is not the only iffy performance — Kidman, looking expensive from head-to-toe, is hard to swallow as a perennial chorus girl, and Pellman and DeBose, while charming, give Stockard Channing and Didi Conn in Grease a run for their money in terms of being credible high-schoolers.
Adding insult to injury, hammy Tracey Ullman is given a newly created bit part, one that seems to suggest parents who chase their gay 16-year-olds into the streets are people we just haven't tried hard enough to understand. In the post-(he wrote hopefully) Trump era, the idea of trying to understand fundamentally bad people feels, unfortunately, right at home in this misguided fairy tale.
As a postscript, one thing about this show that bothered me when I paid to see it on Broadway and that survives for no good reason in the movie is Kidman's character — who has been in Chicago on Broadway for two decades — bitching about Tina Louise, of all people, playing Roxie. “Is she still alive?” Streep's character cackles. In the Broadway show, there is a later joke about Louise being sidelined with shingles. Tina Louise is 86 years old, and wouldn't even be considered for Chicago, something she likely would have loved to do 20 years ago. Making her the butt of this joke belies the show's brittle grasp on empathy, and also its cowardice — Tina Louise has no power, so the show smacks her, and that's about as ambitious as The Prom is in tackling actual enemies; it's forever swatting at low-hanging fruit and takes its bows as if it has solved a damn thing.