Prom, The (United States, 2020)

December 10, 2020
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Prom, The Poster

Despite its awkward and uneven elements, The Prom offers enough high-energy moments to be seen as a passable motion picture adaptation of the stage play written by Bob Martin and Chad Beguelin. As movie adaptations of musicals go, this one is a giant step down from most of the lavish, impressively budgeted productions typically mounted for such transmogrifications. The material itself is unremarkable and the execution is mediocre. It stands out as often for missteps as for elements that are memorable.

The story follows the efforts of Broadway stars Dee Dee Allen (Meryl Streep) and Barry Glickman (James Corden) to revive their respective careers after the critical savaging of their latest play, “Eleanor!” (a musical in which Dee Dee plays the title character and Barry is FDR). Joined by down-on-their-luck performers Angie Dickinson (Nicole Kidman) and Trent Oliver (Andrew Rannells), they head to Hicksville, U.S.A. (Indiana), where a school PTA has opted to cancel the high school prom rather than allow a lesbian, Emma Nolan (Jo Ellen Pellman), to come with a female date. Dee Dee and Barry believe that by getting involved in this situation, they will be able to burnish their reputations as activists.

Director Ryan Murphy struggles with the film’s tone, veering uncertainly from comedy to melodrama. The early scenes are so oddly constructed that they raise the question of whether The Prom is intended as a social satire or, more broadly, as a parody of movie musicals. The narrative seems to be going for the jugular by lampooning celebrity activism but eventually backs off as if deciding that’s the wrong path to take. The movie is never comfortable, however, in wedding its satirical and serious elements. The only characters we’re able to embrace are Emma and her in-the-closet girlfriend, Alyssa (Ariana DeBose). Everyone else is presented too broadly. Or, in the case of Dee Dee, perhaps not broadly enough.

I wonder how many critics are going to call out Meryl Streep for one of the worst performances of her storied career. Dee Dee is a monster – a self-absorbed narcissist of the first order. Yet, for reasons known only to Murphy and the screenwriters, the movie makes an abrupt change midway through and attempts to humanize her. Instead of making her the movie’s villain, she is accorded a redemptive arc that includes a misfire of a romance with Keegan-Michael Key’s high school principal. Streep appears baffled about how to play the character. She gives us moments of her scintillating work from The Devil Wears Prada but, when she plays it straight, she seems like she’s in a different movie.

As bad as Streep is, however, she’s no match for James Corden, whose over-the-top fatuous portrayal of a gay character seems ripped out of another century. This sort of caricature was common enough in ‘80s and ‘90s films but has thankfully all-but-disappeared in recent years. Apparently determined to prove that he could be even worse than in Cats, Corden has created a character so cringeworthy in The Prom that he should be disqualified from ever appearing in another musical. His mismanagement of his character nearly obfuscates the touching work of the film’s young star, Jo Ellen Pellman.

The film’s rousing musical numbers show energy and verve, although the “power ballads” are sappy. I was partial to a catchy tune in which Andrew Rannells “argues” with a group of holier-than-thou bigots about Biblical hypocrisy. On those occasions when the characters sing and dance, it’s easy to forget about all the things The Prom does wrong and simply appreciate its ability to provoke a smile. The ending is too eager to please but by that point it has become apparent that the movie isn’t as daring or dark as it appears to be during some of the early scenes. There’s a peculiar alchemy associated with translating a stage production filled with singing and dancing into something that works on the big screen and The Prom falls short of producing gold.

Prom, The (United States, 2020)

Run Time: 2:10
U.S. Release Date: 2020-12-11
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity, Sexual Content)
Genre: Musical
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1