Review: The Prom (2020)

Director: Ryan Murphy
Screenwriters: Chad Beguelin, Bob Martin
Starring: Meryl Streep, James Corden, Nicole Kidman, Keegan Michael-Key, Kerry Washington
Genres: Comedy, Musical, Drama, LGBT
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, some suggestive/sexual references, and language
Release Dates: 12/11/20 (Streaming)
Runtime: 2h 10min
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 55%
Where to Watch: Netflix
Oscar Nomination(s): Possible–Actress (Streep), Costume Design, Production Design, Sound; Long-Shot–Picture, Actor (Corden), Supporting Actress (Kidman)

I wasn’t among the fortunate ones who were able to see The Prom while it was on Broadway (or Hamilton), but I’ve heard from those who did that it’s an exceptionally great musical with a lot of heart and great songs, that just so happens to be centered on a lesbian couple in who just want to be able to go to prom in their conservative Indiana hometown. Also, the Broadway production smartly cast relative unknowns, who wouldn’t have been able to get a chance to shine otherwise. Apparently, the original cast auditioned for roles in the Ryan Murphy-lead film adaptation, but he decided to go with bigger names, which was probably the wrong call here. The only newcomer is JoEllen Perlman as Emma, the girl who wants to take her girlfriend to prom; she’s surrounded by a cast of Oscar and Tony winners, including Meryl Streep, James Corden, Nicole Kidman, and Kerry Washington — but it doesn’t work as well as you’d expect it to with such a talented cast. 

Let me get right to the biggest complain regarding Ryan Murphy’s The Prom: The casting of straight actor James Corden as the outwardly gay and flamboyant main character. It’s, at times, so uncomfortable to watch him tackle issues that are foreign to him and emotions that are not within his grasp as an actor, that at some points I had to look away. Now, I don’t usually have a problem with straight actors playing queer characters, as long as it’s presented in a manner that is believable and that the actor isn’t embodying any stereotypes, the latter of which is what Corden’s mainly doing here. Also, Murphy frustratingly adds more scenes specific to that character and his backstory, which feels unnecessary and just a way to give Corden more to do (bad idea). I think this character can only be portrayed by an out gay actor, such as Titus Burgess or Dan Levy. I’m as befuddled by his casting here as I am by his Golden Globe nomination for this role. 

Corden’s additional scenes add to the extended runtime, and at one point I paused and couldn’t believe there was as much left as there was. Typically, when plays and musicals are adapted for the screen, much is cut out (a la Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom), so as not to lose viewers. The script could’ve certainly used some trimming, and maybe a couple musical numbers could have been cut or shortened. The songs themselves are a mixed bag, although this is partially due to the poor sound mixing; like with Murphy’s Glee, when characters break out into song, it sounds more unnatural. It’s almost like The Prom can’t even figure out its own internal logic, let alone follow that logic. There are enough songs to give individual actors chances to shine, but that’s hindered by the terrible sound work here. I was tempted to turn down the volume during certain musical numbers, and then turn it back during dialogue-driven scenes. 

Even though I would’ve preferred more newcomers in these roles, I did appreciate Streep’s performance here. She’s certainly campy and over-the-top, but not as much as I’d expected; it may even be a better performance than she gave in Into the Woods (for which she received her umpteenth Oscar nomination). She’s quite hilarious at times, even when the script and story aren’t living up to the performance she’s giving. Her chemistry with Keegan-Michael Key, who is actually quite solid in a fairly toned-down role, isn’t what the movie would like it to be, although that’s mainly because she’s over 20 years older than him. Her character’s change of heart is predictable — like just about everything else in the movie — but because she’s Meryl freakin’ Streep, she pulls it off. 

Fellow legend and Oscar winner Kidman is perfectly fine, and gets a stand-out Chicago-esque musical number, but I totally don’t buy her as the chorus girl who waits in the wings. Again, this role would’ve been better for a newcomer. And, there’s also Washington, whose casting here makes almost as little less as Corden’s; she doesn’t fit the role of the conservative, anti-gay head of the PTO whose change of heart at the end [predictable spoiler] is so quick, that it doesn’t make any real sense. It’s almost as though Murphy wanted to stuff as much big names into the cast as possible, even if it meant sacrificing the story. Andrew Rannells has a bit role here, and his stand-out musical number makes me think he would’ve been better in a bigger role (like Corden’s). 

Surprisingly, the least-known actors were actually the VIPS. Newcomer Perlman is outstanding and hopefully this brings about new, better opportunities for me. As her girlfriend, Alyssa (that’s my name!), Arianna DeBose is solid too, and I’m excited to see what she brings to the new Steven Spielberg version of West Side Story. Actually, my favorite song performance — despite sound mixing issues — was they sang together, and despite the fact that neither of their characters are developed all that well, I was still rooting for them. 

I know it sounds like I’m harping on the film, which I really am, as I’d had high hopes; apparently, queer-centric films can be as disappointing as heterosexual ones. That said, I still appreciated The Prom‘s message of love and acceptance; I just wish it’d been executed better.