Yes, gentle readers, it’s time to weigh in on what’s rapidly becoming one of the year’s most divisive films. The Prom comes to us from screenwriters Chad Beguelin and Bob Martin, here adapting their own book and lyrics from the original 2018 musical. The film was directed and produced by Ryan Murphy of “Glee” infamy, and not a single actor from the stage show was cast.
The premise begins with Dee Dee Allen and Barry Glickman (respectively played by Meryl Streep and James Corden), two aging Broadway actors obsessed with changing lives and making the world a better place, so long as it benefits them and their careers in the process. The two are such raging unhinged narcissists that their latest Broadway spectacular shuts down on its opening day, due to scathing reviews and their general lack of popularity.
The two of them are quickly joined by Angie Dickinson (Nicole Kidman), an aging chorus girl who’s been on Broadway for years and still hasn’t landed a leading role. There’s also Trent Oliver (Andrew Rannells), a Julliard graduate stuck bartending between gigs. Long story short, the four of them find the perfect means of satisfying their ego-driven altruism without any need for auditions or ticket sales: Celebrity activism.
Enter Emma Nolan, played by newcomer (and real-life queer actor) Jo Ellen Pellman. She’s a gay teenager in some remote Indiana high school who wants to go to prom with her girlfriend (Alyssa Greene, closeted lesbian and daughter to the head of the PTA, here played by another queer actor named Ariana DeBose). Principal Hawkins (Keegan-Michael Key) is all in favor of a more inclusive prom in which anyone is free to go with the partner of their choice. In the other corner is Mrs. Greene (Kerry Washington), head of the PTA, and a bunch of other homophobes who don’t want to be told they have to put up with having any gays around.
Alas, because Emma can’t technically be banned from the prom without raising certain legal challenges, the PTA votes to cancel prom altogether. As if Emma wasn’t bullied enough for being gay, she’s now the community punching bag for being the reason why nobody has a prom.
The whole kerfuffle goes viral on social media, so Dee Dee and Barry et al. rally their Broadway compatriots to descend unto the Illinois high school and fight for social justice, whether anyone likes it or not. Hilarity ensues.
In summary, what we’ve got here is a situation steeped in palpable bigotry that’s causing very real harm to actual people, and “celebrities” want to barge in where their help is neither wanted nor needed. These self-appointed saviors have only the most shallow knowledge of the issues at play and the people involved, and their only real interest in all of this is how the campaign will help their brand image.
And this story about Midwestern bigotry and same-sex equality is being told by a mid-to-big-budget movie with splashy musical numbers and marquee celebrities.
(Side note: I can’t find any specifics regarding what this film actually cost — I’m not even sure if Netflix releases those numbers.)
I don’t want to call the filmmakers “hypocritical”, necessarily, but you can see the metatextual self-defeating here, right? This is a big-budget Hollywood movie about bullying and homophobia, ostensibly trying to make a statement about celebrity activism without falling into its own trap. That’s an extremely high-risk/high-reward maneuver, and pulling it off would take a satirical grandmaster at the helm. Armando Iannucci, Jon Stewart… hell, even Mel Brooks in his prime might’ve had a challenge making this work.
With all due respect to Ryan Murphy, I’m sure his heart was in the right place, but he’s no Armando Iannucci. Not by a long shot. And without that kind of deeply incisive satirical wit, the filmmakers can’t really do anything but make a whole lot of noise without making a valid point.
For example, consider the students and parents of Edgewater, IN. They’re portrayed as brain-dead bigots who speak entirely in canned talking points, openly proud of their anger and prejudice. I’ve made my peace with the fact that racists and homophobes pretty much have to be portrayed in two-dimensional terms, because umpteen rallies and social media flame wars have firmly established that actual modern-day bigots really are that two-dimensional. But if a film isn’t going to say anything new about them — like, say, why modern-day bigots exist or how we can deal with them — then we’re just seeing and hearing more of the same shit from the 24-hour news cycle that’s driving us all collectively insane.
On the other end of the spectrum, our wannabe white saviors only know how to speak in terms of Broadway musicals. With very few exceptions, Broadway musicals are all about broad strokes, grand emotions, sweeping movements, booming orchestration, etc. It’s a medium specifically built to speak to those in the cheapest seats a mile away from the stage. These characters (and the film as a whole) are trying to comment on a subject that demands great care and subtlety, and they’re doing it with the established genre norms of Broadway musicals. It’s like they’re trying to thread a needle with chopsticks.
A key example is the “It’s Not About Me” musical number. Seriously, Dee Dee gets an entire musical number to dominate the whole conversation, amplifying her own voice instead of Emma’s. This is a very real problem for activism, and it can cause far more harm than good. (Just ask any white activist worth their salt who’s ever been to a Black Lives Matter rally. Better yet, ask the Black Lives Matter activists themselves.)
And every second of Meryl Streep belting through this grotesque, painful musical number is another second of musically assaulting the audience with a display of bad taste, instead of getting to the goddamn point already and showing why this sort of thing is actively harmful. But no, instead of having any kind of meaningful discussion about why this is wrong-headed and counterproductive, we’re treated to fish-out-of-water humor as the uptight snooty rich New York “celebrities” have to deal with the Indiana backwater yokels. It’s threadbare, it’s unfunny, it’s just plain pathetic.
For another matter, consider Parler. As a refresher, Parler was a social media network launched as a counterpoint to the perceived “liberal bias” of Facebook, Twitter, et al. And after a few weeks of explosive growth, Parler (as with Gab and Mixer before it) cratered out as users left and app downloads shriveled up. Why? Well, one explanation is that these startups didn’t have the vast resources of Facebook or Google, and they were unequipped to handle the sudden surge of traffic. Another explanation is that the lack of content moderation led to proliferation of pornography, spam, etc. But there’s a third explanation.
Some say they don’t want to cede the space to the “other side,” some want to be able to see what the other side is saying and to argue with them.
Donie O’Sullivan, reporting for CNN
That’s the thing about modern conservative activists and bigots: They thrive on conflict. They thrive on attention. And what’s more, they thrive on being the victim, the poor underdog being told by some out-of-touch liberal elite that they should think and act a certain way.
So basically, a cadre of Broadway celebrities storming down to impose their values on a Midwestern town full of conservative homophobes would not defuse the situation in any conceivable way. It would, in fact, have the exact opposite effect and get the conservatives all the more riled up. And lest we forget, these are the people who’ve got all the guns!
But of course none of this ever comes up or poses any significant problem in the movie. Because the filmmakers either didn’t know, they didn’t want to drag down their upbeat little movie with real-world politics or consequences, or they just couldn’t be arsed.
I admit to the possibility that I might be overthinking the real-world ramifications to the premise of what’s supposed to be a silly little musical comedy trifle. But then again, I’m not the one who made a movie to comment on this very real subject that’s affecting millions of Americans and numerous activist causes every day, especially in an election year! If the filmmakers were leaning on musical comedy to try and deflate the tension or make the point in a light and entertaining matter, that would be one thing. But this?
This is so drawn-out, over-produced, and aggressively brain-dead that the filmmakers would need a GPS and a telescope to find all the points they missed. Moreover, while Emma’s storyline could have — and probably should have — been something that felt authentic and genuine, it clashes terribly with all the adults who are mugging to the camera with every line. Between the flashy lights, the extravagant musical numbers, the forced comedy, and the characters who could never be recognized as actual human beings, there’s no sociopolitical message or statement in this movie that could possibly be applied to the real world.
HOWEVER, there are a few minor exceptions.
For example, roughly around 50 minutes in, Barry finally gets to sit down with Emma so the both of them can talk like civilized people. It’s a genuinely heartfelt and sincere moment, as Barry is sharing his own wretched experiences as a gay teenager, providing some heart-to-heart counsel in a way that has nothing to do with his ego and everything to do with lifting Emma up. And all through the back half, the Broadway troupe eventually develop into decent human beings who genuinely want to help Emma because it’s the right thing to do. There are, however, three problems.
First off, this is slightly undercut by the knowledge that James Corden himself is a straight man, and there are any number of openly gay actors who would’ve been a vastly superior fit for the role. Corden doesn’t have the kind of life experiences his character is talking about, and he’s nowhere near good enough at acting to pretend he does. Secondly, it’s been so firmly established that these characters and the entire movie are so full of shit, the movie has already lost all credibility by the time it matters most.
Thirdly, Trent gets a huge “Godspell”-inspired musical number just before the third act, going on about how the Bible has so many rules conveniently ignored by modern Christians, so just ignore them and “love thy neighbor”. And that one musical number is enough to instantly and completely turn Emma’s classmates from dyed-in-the-wool homophobes to tolerant allies. As if literally nobody has ever thought to make any of those arguments before. As if this one Julliard guy is the fucking Messiah who could solve this problem better than literally everyone else who has ever lived. FUCK. THAT. NOISE.
On a similar note, I feel strangely compelled to discuss the huge climactic scene in which Emma records a song in her bedroom while playing guitar and it goes viral. Even though YouTube is flooded with DIY acoustic performances like that and 99.99999 percent of them are barely even noticed, much less viral. However, Emma had already gone viral from all the news media coverage (not that there are any journalists, paparazzi, or random strangers hounding her to show as such), so I can let that slide.
The bigger problem is that this sequence is the film’s big show of solidarity, with young people all across the LGBTQ spectrum finding each other online through Emma’s video, sharing the sentiment that they’re not alone. It would be a deeply moving sentiment, but the gaudy light effects and the constantly rotating camera are more nauseating than heartwarming.
The thing is, I already know everything that this movie was trying to say with regards to living as a closeted homosexual, finding the courage to live and love openly. And I know it because Happiest Season said it more succinctly and sincerely in five minutes than this picture does in two hours. And it had the added benefit of being delivered by Kristen Stewart and Dan Levy, both openly queer actors.
Moving on to the cast, I think it’s finally time to give up on James Corden. He can dance, sure, but he can’t act, he can barely sing, and he’s not the least bit funny. The man should stick to his late night talk shows, maybe host the occasional awards ceremony, and quit pretending that he’s any kind of viable movie star.
Though Meryl Streep is clearly having the time of her life as a Broadway Diva, we’ve finally found something she can’t do onscreen: Generate any shred of chemistry with Keegan-Michael Key. Though to be fair, Key was terribly miscast. Kerry Washington is utterly wasted as well.
Nicole Kidman is delightful, but the film doesn’t find any use for her until the back half. Even then, she only really gets one big scene. Ditto for Andrew Rannells — if it wasn’t for the aforementioned “Love Thy Neighbor” number, he might as well not even be in the picture.
Jo Ellen Pellman is a promising new talent, with enough charm and charisma to handle such a central role in the film. Pity she’s acting against Ariana DeBose, whose voice and acting are both considerably flatter than Pellman’s. Though at least Pellman holds her own in a huge musical number with Nicole Kidman, that’s no small feat.
The Prom could only possibly make sense as a wish-fulfillment fantasy in which a musical number can instantly solve literally any problem. I can’t even call it a harmless trifle — it is indeed actively harmful for how it trivializes bullying, homophobia, responsible activism, the double-edged sword of social media exposure, and other such issues that affect countless lives in very real and far-reaching ways. The film has absolutely no answer for any of these extremely complex and deeply intractable factors of modern life, much less any curiosity or insight into the causes or effects of these problems. The characters simply spout some cloying platitudes, sing a splashy musical number, and everything is instantly resolved.
Even when the film is trying to deliver authentic moments and genuinely empowering messages, it falls completely flat because the filmmakers won’t get out of their own goddamn way. It’s like the filmmakers didn’t know if they wanted to make an absurdly and outrageously heightened musical, or they wanted to make something grounded and deep about timely and relevant issues. So they swung as hard as they possibly could from one extreme to the other in the vain hope that it would all balance out somehow.
To be entirely clear, I understand that as a straight white male (albeit one who constantly tries to be a better ally for the LGTBQ community) with only a passing and inconsistent knowledge of Broadway musicals, I’m hardly the target audience for this movie. That said, I found the movie to be a saccharine, ostentatious, pitifully useless, fundamentally spoiled misfire that does way more harm than good. No possible way could I recommend this.