Review: The Prom (2020)

“Gay-Positive-Icon” is really the best way to describe Meryl Streep.

I didn’t think it was possible but in 2020 Netflix has created an entirely new type of movie for me to be mildly entertained by. It’s a unique little subgenre I like to call, “Ryan-Murphy-Produced Film Adaptations of Stage Shows That Are Fine, But I Probably Would Have Enjoyed More on the Stage.” It started with The Boys in the Band (2020) – check out my review, here – and now it’s continued with The Prom (2020). While both movies are far from terrible, they both lack an authenticity that I feel is the result of focusing too much on star-power and production values rather than what should be the heart of the movie: the story. The Prom is a fun musical romp that’s worth the watch, but when you do, just imagine how much better it would have been if you were watching it in person. Also, wouldn’t you just die if you were in the same room as Meryl Streep?

Credit: imdb.com / Netflix

Based on the Broadway play of the same name, The Prom follows four Broadway stars who are all down on themselves after recent career failures. Aiming to gain some positive publicity, they travel to the small town of Edgewater, Indiana to help a lesbian student who is banned from bringing her girlfriend to her high school prom. The stars do everything in their power to change the small-minded townspeople and in the process, learn what it means to be genuinely caring people.

I’m a fan of musicals. Much like pizza, even ones that are bad are still pretty pleasing. Even before watching though, I had a good feeling about The Prom. I trusted Ryan Murphy as the director / producer of this musical about a gay high schooler who gets some help from fabulous Broadway stars. I mean, that’s basically Glee (2009 – 2015). Sure, that show had some problems, but the musical numbers and the incredible A-list talent they roped in were always a ton of fun. So this project should be right up his alley, right? Well, turns out, The Prom is a lot like an episode of Glee. Fun, shiny, and harmless, all the pieces for The Prom to be spectacular are there, but the final product is enjoyably average. If you’re a fan of musicals, I recommend watching it. You might not remember every song or character, but you’ll have a fabulous time basking in the glitz and glamour of this breezy musical romp. It’s a cotton candy movie: Full of bright colours and sugary sweetness that you can easily enjoy without thinking too much about it. As fabulously entertaining as this movie was, there were moments where I felt like I wanted someone with a little more edge and focus than Murphy to direct this movie. Did Murphy nail the silly songs and campy performances? Absolutely. Did he sometimes drop the ball when it came to focusing on Emma, the teen at the centre of the story? Absolutely.

I would have liked to see more attention shifted towards Emma and Alyssa, the young couple who are the catalyst for the story, but both them and the movie’s message of inclusivity and acceptance get pushed to the sidelines in favour of the all-star leads and flashy musical numbers. This is a project that’s going to resonate with a lot of people, especially those in the LGBT+ community who found sanctuary and understanding amongst fellow theatre-lovers, so I would have liked the movie to cool its heels for a second and really say something with depth. The message of The Prom is sweet and lovely, but I would have liked to see it spend the time developing its central characters through actual scenes and dialogue rather than short songs and expositional lines. The rushed character or plot developments through song make sense in a stage show but not so much in a movie. It always ends up feeling like we’re missing something. I know that’s how a lot of musicals operate but A) they always have the appropriate scenes to back it up, and B) but this is a movie, not a stage show. Murphy treating this movie like a stage show was at times really entertaining, but for the most part, just draining.

For starters, The Prom is too damn long. It’s just over two hours which is more on par for an actual Broadway show rather than a Netflix original movie. Honestly, I was exhausted after the first 10 minutes. They throw A LOT at you through song and exposition, jamming as much information as they can into the opening scene and subsequent number. Thankfully the movie moves along quickly, which is a blessing. Around the hour mark feels like it should be the end of the movie, or at least like there should maybe another 20-30 mins, but instead there’s an extra hour because Murphy treats The Prom like a play with two acts instead of a movie that needs to be precisely edited. Also, all that exposition makes sense for the stage but doesn’t translate as seamlessly when presented as a movie. 

That being said, The Prom does add a handful of touches that give the movie all the wonderfulness of sitting through a live version of the show. The production design is filled with buckets of colour and sparkles, giving the whole thing a theatrical flair that will speak to any theatre-kid watching. When it comes to the writing, the script feels like it’s literally taken from a stage production of the show. All of the characters lines and the delivery of those lines sounded exactly like what you would expect from a stage production of this musical. There’s a strong sense of tone throughout and when it comes to the four Broadway stars, there are heaps of biting satire and tongue in cheek humour. Initially their drunken, self-serving idea to get publicity by choosing to help with a random cause made me feel a little icky. Then I realized that it’s a satirical look at how celebrities get involved with viral social justice cases and while it poked fun at that, also managed to make me go, “awwww!” a few times. There were a handful of gratifying moments that got me a little verklempt. Oh, and those songs got me UP. I don’t know if they’re overproduced, or the cast are just amazing singers, or maybe the songs are just that funny and show-stopping, but quite a few of the songs have been in my head all day. They’re an enjoyable mix of toe-tapping showstoppers like, “It’s Not About Me,” and beautiful anthems like, “Just Breathe.”

This is a pretty star-studded cast for a Netflix original. Is that the power of working with Ryan Murphy? Keegan Michael-Key, Nicole Kidman, James Corden, Andrew Rannells, Kerry Washington, and Meryl fucking Streep. They’re all pretty sensational but no surprise here, Streep is the fucking best. Both in general and in terms of this movie. She understands the role of Dee Dee so comprehensively, playing it flawlessly with equal parts of fun silliness and genuine intrigue. Plus, her singing voice sounds better than ever. Streep is chewing all the scenery and being genuinely campy and fabulous and it’s so delightfully entertaining to watch. God, Streep is just fucking fabulous in everything isn’t she? Even in an okay movie she delivers a stunning performance that makes sitting through the whole thing worthwhile. Rannells performs on the same level and understands his character of Trent just as well. He gets the tone which is a lot like his character from “The Book of Mormon.” Watching Streep and Rannells together is so much fun. I’d love to see them in a movie together one day just the two of them. Maybe a comedy where they can be the huge theatre nerds that they are. For me, they’re the most enjoyable parts of The Prom which tracks because I’m a huge fan of both of them.

I feel like Barry is meant to be a much more likeable character, one who you’re like, “YASSSS you’re going to prom! You’re such a role model, you’re my favourite part of this movie!” but Corden doesn’t endear you to the character. I think part of the problem is that his characterization of this gay character is such an overexaggeration. From the first line out of Corden’s mouth I immediately was like, “oh no. This exaggerated gay stereotype is not it.” It’s just so…stereotypical and slightly insulting? Especially considering that he’s a straight man playing a flamboyant gay man. It doesn’t sit well and listening to him read Barry’s lines is borderline cringe-y. Would it have been so difficult for an actual homosexual song-and-dance-man like, Billy Eichner or Jonathan Groff, or Billy Porter? That would have been phenomenal.

As much fun as I had with this movie, I think I’d much rather watch this cast (maybe minus Corden) perform The Prom on the stage rather than watch this adaptation. They’re all so great. Just give me less Corden and more Rannells. Still, there’s plenty to like and gush over in this flashy production, so if you’re looking for something new and fun to watch on Netflix, I strongly recommend giving The Prom a chance. Trust me, Streep’s performance alone is worth it.

Have you seen The Prom?

Let me know in the comments or on social media!

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