The prom arrives on Netflix as part of Director Ryan Murphy’s contract with the streaming service, much like the adaptation of The guys in the band.
At the same level The prom fits perfectly with Murphy’s aesthetic as a director. It’s an adaptation of a Broadway musical about Broadway musicals, one that clashes with a stereotypical representation of the American heartland in a way that invites an elevated and almost caricatured version of both. The prom is a larger than life production and feels very similar with Murphy’s output as a writer, director and producer – von American horror story to ratchet to joy. There is no point in approaching that The prom could ever be “too much”and therefore goes well with Murphy.
At the same time, The prom ultimately feels rather empty. Murphy is very good at offering stylized hyper-real worlds, however The prom feels like a hollow candy. This problem is exacerbated by a sound problem; The movie is never entirely sure how cynical or how serious it wants to be, and as a result, it is often caught halfway between the extremes. The prom never seems to be entirely sure whether it’s a brutal parody of feel-good nonsense or a triumphant example of fleeting entertainment, so it doesn’t work in either register.
This is a shame, given the talent involved in its production and the occasional momentum the film builds through its energetic song-and-dance numbers and game cast. Unfortunately, it never manages to hit the high notes it takes.
The basic plot of The prom concerns a group of Broadway actors freshly emerged from the humiliation of a critically and commercially disastrous stage musical about the life of Eleanor Roosevelt. (It’s titled, not particularly creative, “Eleanor!”Desperate to rehabilitate their brand, the performers desperately seek a trending topic to hang their names on, creating a heroic and heartwarming comeback narrative. You pick the story of Emma Nolan, a young Indiana lesbian who was told she couldn’t get her date to prom.
The premise positions itself immediately The prom as a special brand of modern pop entertainment. It’s a story about performative activism designed to mock and mock those non-contact liberal elites who live on the coast and have no tangible understanding of life in the so-called “Really” America. It’s a common refrain in a post-Trump world that’s reflected in the kind of introspection that goes into projects like Hillbilly elegy, but more direct in relation to self-labeling projects like Irresistible or Coastal elites.
The prom is not quite than interested “Progressives versus systemic problems are their worst enemy” Self-questioning ego trip that defines these projects. After all, the film is at least upbeat enough to suggest that dealing with homophobia may be a good thing, and that talking about it may change your mind and that some of the divide between the heartland and the coast may fade systemic problems such as lack of access to educational resources.
At the same time, The prom suggests that the cast “Persistent Activism” serves to escalate tensions and make things worse while playing various clichés about performative activism which are tired clichés at this point. More than that, The prom cannot select a track. The movie opens by pointing out that Dee Dee Allen and Barry Glickman are on a selfish ego journey that will likely harm Emma more than it will help, but lack the cynicism to follow that idea to the core and all next Dee Dee and Barry inevitably grow up to be better people.
The prom suffers because it is too cynical to properly sell its inevitably serious conclusion, but also because it is too painfully sincere to convincingly sell its early cynicism. The prom seems at first to mock the selfish narratives of the entertainment industry and the tendency to pat oneself on the back for their own self-importance. (In the opening number of the film, Dee praises Dee and Barry Eleanor! as “A show so inspiring that it’s almost impossible to get your way.”However, it inevitably indulges in the same mundane clichés that it so knowingly mocks.
The prom expects the audience to laugh at the self-importance of Dee Dee and Barry who believe their shows can change the world, but then also expects viewers to melt when the local Principle Tom Hawkins talks about how it was an escape to go to Broadway in the summer him. The prom never creates a convincing balance between the two views and therefore changes a lot from one to the other. As a result, the film cannot take up either of the two arguments – be it emptying Broadway stars’ egos or insisting on the importance of what they portray.
That’s a shame because there are individual elements of The prom that works well in isolation. As befits a stage musical translated to the screen, Murphy adds a layer of heightened reality to his staging. Even outside of the musical numbers, the city at the center of the story seems more imaginary than real – the lunch tables at school are freshly painted and look like they’ve never been used, the home settings look more like a sitcom than one true life.
Murphy and cameraman Matthew Libatique are shooting The prom in strong and lively colors. There’s something very smart about the way the movie’s stereotypically healthy environments change dramatically during the musical numbers – it’s all lit up in bold and bold hues, like the cast brought a bit of Broadway to Indiana. To be clear, Murphy doesn’t necessarily reinvent stage-to-screen adaptation. The prom feels a lot like Adam Shankman’s adaptation of Hairspray, albeit with a significantly weaker starting material.
Most of the cast The prom seem to be having a good time. There’s no one out there who offers a career best, but Murphy relies on casting mostly charismatic actors to improve the material. Nicole Kidman is a little unused, but a welcome presence. There’s something surprisingly sweet about Meryl Streep as Dee Dee and Keegan-Michael Key as Hawkins. As in The guys in the bandWhen watching Andrew Rannells, it’s easy to see why the act is so in demand on stage.
That said, there is something slightly frustrating about the way The prom gives the older cast so much space. The story is based on a criticism of these theater veterans who travel to Indiana and kidnap Emma’s tale, but the film never gives Emma the space to recover her story from these intruders. Jo Ellen Pellman and Ariana DeBose are a charming teenage couple, and that’s a shame The prom refuses to spend more time with them.
For a film that should be firmly positioned in Murphy’s wheelhouse, The prom is something of an overwhelming effort.