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Despite pacing problems and a miscast James Corden, this starry adaptation of the Broadway musical scores big laughs
THE PROM (Ryan Murphy). 140 minutes. Now streaming on Netflix. Rating: NNN
When The Prom debuted on Broadway in 2018, most people complained it had two competing stories. One was a hilarious satire about show-business self-absorption – which everyone, including me, thought was superior – while the other was a sentimental one about inclusion and diversity in middle America. Ryan Murphy’s charming new Netflix adaptation of The Prom makes the transitions between these stories smoother. But some wonky casting choices and an overly long running time might make you check the other “What’s new on Netflix” offerings during its lengthy second half.
The set-up is gloriously ridiculous. After the opening night bomb of Eleanor!, an ill-thought-out musical about Eleanor Roosevelt, stars Dee Dee (Meryl Streep) and Barry (James Corden) – called narcissists by reviewers – look for a way to resuscitate their images.
They’re drowning their sorrows in front of bartender Trent (Andrew Rannells), who’s between acting gigs, when perpetual chorus girl Angie (Nicole Kidman) tells them about a trending story involving an Indiana high school that’s cancelling its prom because it didn’t want one of its female students to take another girl to the dance.
Before you can Google how those Hoosiers voted during the recent election (hint: it’s Mike Pence’s home state), the flashy foursome are heading westward on a tourbus to a non-Equity production of Godspell and ready to bring some jazz hands to a worthy cause.
The person at the centre of the controversy is Emma (Jo Ellen Pellman), whose parents disowned her after she came out. She simply wants to go to the dance with her girlfriend, Alyssa (Ariana DeBose), who ironically is the closeted daughter of the conservative PTA member (Kerry Washington) who doesn’t want same-sex partners at the prom.
Once the East coast liberals descend on the midwest town, there’s lots of fish-out-of-water fun. Streep’s Dee Dee has a great ongoing gag about Appleby’s. The high school’s liberal Principal Hawkins (Keegan-Michael Key) turns out to be a huge Dee Dee fan. And Barry bonds with Emma over not going to the prom.
The problem with the script – co-written by Canadian Bob Martin and Chad Beguelin, from the original musical – is that it has too many characters to keep checking in with. You need to see the two young women in love, and so they get a song. Streep’s the star, so she needs a couple of flashy numbers, including the delectable It’s Not About Me. After a lengthy gap, Kidman and Rannells show up to earn their paycheques.
The film has added a couple of characters who were only hinted at in the show. And in the climactic number, Murphy can’t refrain from turning on the sentimental waterworks in the kind of number that worked far better in Dear Evan Hansen.
Still, when The Prom is good, it’s very good. I adored Beth Leavel’s original performance, but Streep devours the role, camping it up in the early moments and then dialing it back as her character becomes more and more grounded. Key delivers the most surprising performance as the lovestruck principal. And Pellman holds her own opposite the A-list cast.
Beguelin’s lyrics, especially about self-obsessed Broadway types, are hilarious. And there’s lots of cleverness in Martin’s dialogue, such as when Barry says, “I realized there is no difference between the president of the united states and a celebrity – we both have power.”
Even Casey Nicholaw’s choreography, confined to school hallways and gyms, recaptures much of its original excitement.
And then there’s Corden. Surely we’re beyond the whole debate about whether straight actors can play gay, and vice versa. But what Corden does with the role, especially in the early scenes, feels like such a half-hearted, limp-wristed stereotype that it makes the film’s main theme seem hypocritical. What’s worse, he’s not a very good actor.
A lot of acting is about listening and responding, engaging in a moment even when you’re not talking. Someone needs to teach Corden that. He was a vacuum in Into The Woods, and he sucks the energy out of a scene in a similar way here. There’s a moment with Barry and Dee Dee in a hotel room where Streep is giving everything, and Corden, in between his lines, is just… blank.
The musical’s original actor, Brooks Ashmanskas, was a much more generous performer, deepening the role in a way that made his character feel authentic.
It’s strange that nobody invited the openly gay Nathan Lane to this Prom. Sure, there’s a line in the film that, if you do the math, suggests Barry is supposed to be in his 40s. But they could have changed that. After all, as this film tries to prove, in showbiz you can make anything happen.