The Prom starts with a bad review. Well, technically, Ryan Murphy’s bells-and-whistles (and-klaxons-and-sirens-and-fire-alarms-and-jackhammers) adaptation of the 2016 musical that ended up on Broadway in 2018 kicks off with an inciting act of intolerance: Emma Nolan (Jo Ellen Pellman), a senior at James Madison High School in Edgewater, Indiana, wants to take her girlfriend to the prom. The head of the P.T.A., Mrs. Greene (Kerry Washington), isn’t having it. She leads the organization in a vote to cancel the dance entirely, much to the dismay of Emma, Principal Tom Hawkins (Keegan-Michael Key) and the rest of the student body. “Note to self: People suck in Indiana,” our heroine sings, and given the serious slagging the Hoosier State gets throughout, you can practically hear its tourism board wringing their hands and moaning in unison, assuming your eardrums are not bleeding before the end credits. Then you remember this is the heartland state that elected Mike Pence as governor and gave us the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and, well, sorry Indiana, you’ll have to reap a little of what you’ve sown here.
But back to that aforementioned pan. Thousands of miles away, on the Great White Way, it’s the opening night of Eleanor!, a massive bio-spectacle about the life and times of Mrs. Roosevelt. It’s blessed with not one but two marquee-name, high-maintenance stars in the cast. There’s Barry Glickman (James Corden), the exquisitely coiffed male lead who marinates in self-seriousness and describes his F.D.R. by way of saying that “there’s no difference between the President of the United States and a celebrity: We both have the power to change the world.” And then there’s Dee Dee Allen (Meryl Streep), a diva among divas, a genuine Broadway legend and two-time Tony winner — she keeps them in her bag, and is happy to show them to you — who knows just how lucky the late first lady is to have such a gifted thespian portray her.
Everyone retires to Sardi’s afterward, and the first notice suggests it’s the second coming of Hamilton. But then a few more come in, and … the cheering crowd slowly slinks away. One review is particularly scathing: Glickman is singled out for giving the worst, most offensive performance the pundit had ever seen. Allen’s turn as Eleanor “is like paying an aging drag queen to shove a syrup-soaked American flag down my throat.” The writer suggests that potential ticket buyers instead buy a rope to hang themselves. Also, they weren’t too keen on the use of hip-hop.
Critics — what the hell do they know? Look, we’re not going to defend our profession here. We’re monsters. But there are many of us who do love musicals, especially movie musicals. Some of us may have once considered naming a dog “The Arthur Freed Unit.” Others might have eagerly viewed a bootleg of this very play on YouTube — not that such things exist, mind you, or have ever existed — after failing to catch it before that final curtain call in August 2019. And while no one is suggesting that people mercifully shuffle off this mortal coil instead of watching The Prom, which drops on Netflix on December 11th after a limited release, we’re duty-bound to note that this hyperventilating, jazz-hands-seizure of a take on the material isn’t exactly doing it justice. Yes, the original lyricist Chad Beguelin and his co-writer on the book, Bob Martin, penned the screenplay. The messages of acceptance and love and forgiveness, the meta showbiz gags, the melismatic songs and moderately good dance numbers are still present and accounted for. But there’s an extra patina of sweaty-palmed, plastered-smile manic panic, as well as a tendency to blow things up to Vegas levels of overkill, that makes this feel less like an adaptation then a full-frontal assault. No one wants subtle in musical comedy, but maybe pitching things at the level of Charles Nelson Reilly screaming though a TED talk on tolerance for two-plus hours isn’t the answer either. This is what it looks like when you Glee a beloved Broadway production to death.
Streep and Corden aren’t the only stars reveling in actors-behaving-badly shtick. Nicole Kidman shows up as Angie Dickinson — no relation to the Point Blank actress/police woman of yore — as a longtime Chicago chorus girl who’s done waiting two decades to nab the role of Roxie Hart. (Does this mean she’ll eventually do a Fosse-inspired no two about the healing power of “zazz”? Yes. Yes, it does.) And rounding out the Sardi’s Four is Andrew Rannells’ Trent Oliver, a proud graduate of Juilliard who, once upon a time, starred in a sitcom called Talk to the Hand. Now he’s killing time between gigs as a bartender at the famed theater-district eatery. (Will he continue to mention that he attended Julliard throughout the movie as a running joke? Yes. Yes, he will.) They both realize that a major image rehabilitation is in order for the tainted Allen and Glickman, and that it will take a highly publicized act of social justice to get the stink off of them. Luckily, Dickinson discovers Nolan’s case via Twitter, the quartet heads to Indiana, and voila, let the high-priced-poached-salmon-outta-water jokes and pageantry commence.
Virtually everyone gets to anchor at least one big number, even Key (“We Look to You”). As in the play, Kidman’s all-that-jazz ode feels like it was shoehorned in (she disappears for so long that you almost forget she’s in the movie) and if nothing else, Rannells’ animated rundown of Bible-thumpers’ hypocrisy in “Love Thy Neighbor” reminds you why his Tony nomination for The Book of Mormon should’ve resulted in a win. Pellman is the cast newcomer, a recent graduate of the University of Michigan’s musical theater program with the kind of over-the-top voice that Broadway audiences love — you want scream “please breathe!” when she holds some of the longer notes in her first song “Just Breathe.” The young woman has chops. You wish she also had chemistry with stage phenom Ariana DeBose, cast as Nolan’s secret significant other, but you can’t have everything. Whether you think Corden’s mincing, prancing, Cliff-Notes-on-camp performance is a genuine pinkface atrocity is a matter of opinion. What we can confirm, however, is that a little of the late-night host’s theater-geek exuberance goes a long way; a medium-sized dose of it may cause dizziness and nausea; and a high dose can turn a 10-mile radius around him toxic. (Maybe this is the actual “butthole cut” of Cats everyone was talking about?) We already love you, James. You can stop pleading now.
And Meryl Streep is … Meryl Streep. The consummate professional, the perpetual employer of actorly business (keep fluttering those hands and absent-mindedly touching your face all you want), the never-boring, movie-star royalty we know and love. Never mind what the New York Times says, Her Merylness remains a permanent fixture on the Mt. Olympus of American screen thespianism, and though you’d never mistake her Dee Dee Allen for Joanna Kramer or Karen Silkwood, you can’t dismiss the expert haughtiness and egotistical brio she brings to this party. You recognize the character’s likely influences — a little bit of borrowed Tallulah Bankhead, a little bit of pilfered Patti LuPone, a whole lot of Miranda Priestly — and you slow-clap the ways Streep tries to leave her mark on what can be a stock caricature of a diva. (She gives the film’s single best line reading when told she and her costar are aging narcissists: “I still don’t know what’s wrong with that!”) This is Streep in fun mode, and The Prom‘s one gift to us. While much of the A-list roster faintly whiffs of the same stunt casting Broadway shows use to goose advance ticket sales, the Oscar-winner at least gives you the sense that there’s no where else she’d rather be than here. It’s almost worth sitting through so much shiny, happy storm and stress to see her sell the show’s one truly great set piece, “It’s Not About Me,” while using her red fur coat like a matador’s cape.
If only the movie surrounding her gloriously ghastly grande-dame act were one iota worthy of her Dee Dee. It’s a cliché to say that the kind of musical that The Prom is — broad, bawdy, belting, and bursting with everybody-dance-now uplift — works better onstage. Yet to watch how Ryan Murphy and his collaborators turn everything into the cinematic equivalent of loud & proud white noise is more deflating than you can imagine. Cinematographer Matthew Libatique’s cameras never, ever stop moving, to that point that every innocuous exchange apparently requires a swooping pan in, a 360-degree rotation around the actors and a crane shot. The use of pastel and candy-colored lighting as a de facto visual choice quickly becomes an overly busy eyesore, though we guess that’s one way to turn a red state purple. The editing keeps cutting away from jokes and comic moments, all the “better” to showcase mugging reactions and winks. Everything is turned up to 11, at all times. Nothing really registers. The play registered as an giddy parable of empowerment, in which love conquered all and the ridiculous notion that “Broadway liberal” celebrities could change the world one small Americana town at a time. This Prom is little more than High School Musical filtered through a dozen afterschool specials. “This is what not failing feels like!” exclaims Allen in the movie’s final act. No, not quite.