The Prom doesn’t offer much in the way of insight or novelty, but its glitz-and-glitter styling is a welcome confection at the end of 2020.
Ryan Murphy’s name has become so synonymous with small screen camp that his feature filmmaking career has been somewhat overlooked. But having helmed 2006’s Running with Scissors and 2010’s Eat Pray Love, the creator of Glee, Nip/Tuck, and American Horror Story is no stranger to the big screen. Keeping both of those things in mind, The Prom, adapted from the 2018 Broadway musical of the same name, seems perfectly suited to his singular sensibilities. The story follows the exploits of a band of washed-up Broadway actors, including an aging diva in need of a hit (Meryl Streep), her latest Tony-chasing co-star (James Corden), a nearly over-the-hill chorus girl (Nicole Kidman), and a one-hit-wonder/bartender (Andrew Rannells), who descend upon a small conservative town in Indiana that canceled the high school prom rather than allow a lesbian student (Jo Ellen Pellman) to attend with a date. Looking for publicity rather than justice, the group of “liberals from New York” end up making the situation worse, forcing them all to examine their own shortcomings and change their own hearts before trying to change everyone else’s.
Yes, it’s pabulum, but it’s also one of the most purely entertaining Broadway adaptations to come along in quite some time (then again, coming out after Cats means it’s being graded on a steep curve). Murphy throws so much glam and glitter at this thing that you’d be forgiven for thinking that the musical numbers were outtakes from RuPaul’s Drag Race, but they’re so over-the-top that it’s almost difficult not to get caught up in the sheer exuberance of it all, and Matthew Libatique’s cotton candy-colored photography is a constant delight. Murphy shoots each number like it’s an end-of-Act One showstopper, and in some ways his film couldn’t have arrived at a more opportune time; coming in the final throes of a 2020 that most would rather forget, audiences deserve some outrageously overproduced glitz, and in that regard, The Prom delivers in spades. The film’s biggest stumbling block is Corden, whose limp-wristed characterization of a raging theatre queen isn’t so much offensive as it is tiresome, and it makes one long to see what someone like Titus Burgess would have done with the role. Gay stereotypes perpetuated by straight actors have been with us for ages, and Corden’s certainly won’t be the last, but it’s almost too dull to work up any strong feelings about. In addition to Corden’s swishy caricature, we’re also subjected to some surface-level liberalism that feels straight out of 2005, trafficking in familiar “be yourself” tropes that feel oddly sterile (Hairspray already did all of this with considerably more flair). But while it doesn’t really have anything new to say other than recycling some well-worn platitudes, The Prom features both Meryl Streep hamming it up in full-on diva mode and a wealth of exuberant show tunes, and at the end of a year like 2020, that’s the kind of sugar-coated entertainment that really hits the spot.
You can currently stream Ryan Murphy’s The Prom on Netflix.