Sunday, January 10, 2021

Bad Date: The Prom

Meryl Streep and James Corden in The Prom, now streaming on Netflix.

Early on in The Prom, director Ryan Murphy’s new Netflix movie musical based on the modest Broadway hit, Andrew Rannells, playing a Juilliard-trained actor who bartends between gigs, hears a bunch of kids singing “Day by Day” from Godspell and promptly vomits into a bucket. I had a similar impulse throughout The Prom. It’s cheap, nasty, badly cast, assaultive in its songs, choreography, and camera work, and so awash in sentimentality you could fall into a glycemic coma. In other words, perfect fodder for Ryan Murphy, whose work (Glee, Hollywood, American Horror Story) revels in the mean and the sappy.

There’s a sort of meme on the Interwebs where people feed volumes of a specific type of text (comic books, rom-coms, Hallmark Christmas movies) into an AI bot, and then ask it to spit out its own take on the genre. That’s what The Prom feels like, as generic as a can of off-brand peas. I was completely surprised to discover that Bob Martin, whose earlier show The Drowsy Chaperone reveals how a silly little musical with modest aims and unpretentious claims can be a source of comfort and even joy, is responsible for both the original book and the screenplay, along with Chad Beguelin, who also penned the lyrics. The Prom is the opposite of The Drowsy Chaperone in almost every possible way: preachy, overblown, and obvious.

The ripped-from-the-headlines-of-ten-years-ago plot centers on two Broadway has-beens (James Corden and Meryl Streep) and two Broadway never-weres (Rannells and Nicole Kidman) who decide they can kick-start their careers through celebrity activism. They latch onto the story of Emma (newcomer Jo Ellen Pellman), an Indiana teen whose school has cancelled its prom rather than let her attend with her girlfriend. The shut-down was the call of PTA president and resident nasty bitch Mrs. Greene (Kerry Washington, in a career low-light), over the objections of the school principal (Keegan-Michael Key). The four Great White Way denizens hitch a bus ride with Rannells’ non-Equity company of Godspell (hence the vomit), and take the town by storm. Everybody sings songs, an unending supply of them, and becomes a better – well, “person” isn’t the right word, since the entire enterprise is as devoid of humanity as a black hole.

Streep’s Tony-winning-yet-past-her-prime Dee Dee Allen is clearly meant to be a send-up of Patti LuPone, who would have been far funnier in the part. Instead we get La Streep’s forced theatricality rather than true Broadway diva-dom. (She rarely looks comfortable in the movie musicals she’s been in. She was truly riotous in the spoof number “Me” that opens 1992’s Death Becomes Her, and she’s fun in the recent Mary Poppins Returns, but her work in Mamma Mia! and Into the Woods is atrocious.)

Corden swishes it up as Barry Glickman, Dee Dee’s co-star in the recent flop Eleanor!, a bio-musical about Eleanor Roosevelt. Corden’s received criticism for perpetrating a negative stereotype, but Barry, like every other role in The Prom, is a stereotype. You can’t fault only the actor when the role itself is this clich├ęd and unimaginative. We are never explicitly told if Rannells’s Trent Oliver is supposed to be gay, but we can safely assume so, since he speaks fluent Snide. 

Nicole Kidman and Jo Ellen Pellman in The Prom.

The most puzzling of the leads, however, is Nicole Kidman as Angie Dickinson. (That’s the actual name according to IMDB, but I don’t think I heard it mentioned even once. And naming her after a legendary sex goddess is quite odd.) Unlike the other three, Angie is not a narcissist, but then she isn’t much of anything at all. We have no idea why she’s hanging around with these phonies, and for the first half of the film, we don’t even know why she’s in it. Then she gets to sing a buck-yourself-up number to Pellman’s lonely lesbian. Angie is a longtime member of the chorus of Chicago, so the song is a Kander-and-Ebb pastiche called “Zazz.” (Actual lyric: “You’ll find that zazz will soon make fear become your bitch.”) It requires her to do Fosse-like isolations and pops. She can’t, so Murphy and his editor (Danielle Wang) keep the camera moving and the shots quick and murky. Kidman is an actress I’ve liked only rarely, and when I have, it’s never been for her “zazz.” She’s the most miscast in a movie rife with bad casting.

The only surprise in the film is how low it’s willing to sink to let you know that “gays are people too.” Rannells sings a song with the wretched title of “Love Your Neighbor,” which magically convinces all of the lesbian’s schoolmates to be nice to her. There’s no reason why they shouldn’t, since Pellman’s Emma is the blandest lesbian ever. You might at first be grateful for that blandness in the in the midst of all the strenuous scenery chewing, but it doesn’t make you care about her damn prom. Key’s principal appears to be a closeted homosexual, since he’s so firmly on Emma’s side and he fan-boys out when he first meets Dee Dee. (Murphy keeps the camera swirling around the two of them like he’s Brian De Palma shooting Tommy and Carrie at their prom. The scene would have been greatly improved by a big bucket of pig’s blood.) When Dee Dee asks the principal if he’s straight, Key looks extremely uncomfortable, hesitates, and then says he is. It seems like he’s concealing the truth and that we’re being set up for his coming-out at show’s end. But it turns out he is straight, and he becomes, improbably, Streep’s romantic interest.

Tracey Ullman shows up in a cameo as Glickman’s estranged mother, but she’s as unconvincing as the rest. Only Mary Kay Place, in one too-brief scene as Emma’s grandmother, comes across as a human being.

Casey Nicholaw, who directed the show on Broadway, provides the hyperactive choreography, which clashes with Murphy’s hyperactive camera. Matthew Libatique, the cinematographer, makes all the tinsel and glitter look cheap and tacky, bouncing his light off the endless sequins costumer Lou Eyrich and art director Tom Frohling provide. The songs are credited to Beguelin and Matthew Sklar, but I suspect the same AI bot that wrote the script. More of Beguelin’s lyrics: “One thing’s universal: / Life’s no dress rehearsal” and “You’re bound to discover / This book’s not the cover.” But in two full hours of low point after low point, it’s hard to get any lower than James Corden singing to himself, “Who cares if you’re a big ole girl? / Just get in that gym and twirl.”

I’m with Mrs. Greene: somebody should have shut this thing down.

Joe Mader has written on film and worked as a theater critic for various publications including the SF Weekly, The San Francisco Examiner,, and The Hollywood Reporter. He previously served as the managing director for the San Francisco theater company 42nd Street Moon. He currently works at Cisco Systems and writes on theater for his own blog, Scene 2.



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