Filmed inside a bag of Skittles with the intensely bright sugar high to match, Netflix’s “The Prom” is a glittery and glitzy spectacle made to overwhelm – for better or worse. Ryan Murphy’s movie musical won’t relent until every song has been belted to the back row, every lighting gel is burned through and every feeling has been felt, making the audience occasionally wonder if this is entertainment or endurance. Thanks to its sweet, colorful and occasionally dazzling heart, the former wins out. Much like those Skittles, you can think about the future cavities, or you can learn to stop worrying and love “The Prom.”
Hot off an opening night of brutal pans for their new Broadway show – an self-congratulatory ode to an unheralded, unheard of hero they discovered: First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt – narcissistic stars Dee Dee Allen (Meryl Streep, doing her finest Patti LuPone cosplay) and Barry Glickman (James Corden) decide their careers, but really their egos, need a boost. Together with down-on-his-luck self-proclaimed Julliard grad Trent (Andrew Rannells) and longtime “Chicago” chorus girl Angie (Nicole Kidman, introduced Fosse arms first), they decide they must find a cause to champion in the name of proving they’re Good People.
Their cause, thanks to a quick doomscroll through Twitter, brings them to small-town Indiana and Emma (Jo Ellen Pellman), a high schooler whose simple desire to take her girlfriend to prom ends up rattling the PTA – led by a smilingly venomous Kerry Washington – and canceling the dance for everyone (all based on a sadly true story from 2010). Thankfully, our ego-tastic Broadway stars are here to sing everyone into unity – whether they like it or not – and learn just as many lessons as they’re crooning out.
Ever the maximalist, Murphy (“Glee,” “American Horror Story” and Netflix’s “Hollywood”) bets hard on big names going broad. As the falling star Allen, Streep is in full late Meryl mode – which is to say having a carefree blast. She doesn’t have the vocal chops to match her LuPone imitation, but she’s a treat and plays off Corden well, especially in the beginning as the snappy script makes fun of their woefully misplaced celebrity self-import and superiority. (For instance: In the reprise of “Changing Lives,” the crew announces their quest for tolerance … after brutally judging all of the Midwest for several lines.)
Broadway vet Rannells ("The Book of Mormon") makes a meal out of his supporting role as well, mining each of his proud Julliard gloats for all their comedic worth and single-handed powering “Love Thy Neighbor” out of mere preachiness.
That being said, it’s the mostly unknown newcomer Pellman that serves as the film’s secret weapon and makes “The Prom” a celebration worth the RSVP. Surrounded by starry performers going big, Pellman imbues the broadly boisterous bubble gum production with a pure sincerity and undeterred effervescence that’s hard not to root for and feel through the screen. When her heart hopes or breaks, the audience’s goes with it – something the glossy show needs, an emotional core to grip onto through the glitter. “The Prom” may proudly wear its heart on its arm like a massive corsage, but it’s Pellman that gives it an actual human beat.
The glitter, though, is fantastic in its own way too, and “The Prom” delivers on regularly doling out bright and beaming spectacle. The opening numbers – featuring Streep, Corden and company marching down Broadway in all of the sequins and celebrating in a glowingly glossy NYC bar – blissfully sell a big-screen show no matter your screen size. Meanwhile the poppy musical numbers in Indiana sweetly capture the swooning highs, lows and hopes of young love, optimism and growing up, the campus glowing with color – and, sure, some not-quite-Indiana cherry blossom-esque trees – to match Pellman and her closeted girlfriend’s (Ariana DeBose) aching feelings.
Everything about “The Prom” is unapologetically colorful and cornball, fueled by “put on a show” energy. The big somehow perfectly choreographed prom dance numbers make an honestly welcome return from the ‘90s, zippily captured by great Oscar-nominated cinematographer Matthew Libatique (“Birds of Prey,” “Black Swan”), swirling and skimming across the dance floor with its stars. Somehow even a musical number hosted in an Applebee’s booth has some warmth and sparkle to it.
Even if the songs themselves aren’t classics – Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin’s music and lyrics generally get the job done and then get out – Murphy, Libatique and their crew bring a breathless excitement to the musical, the infectious joy of a big snazzy show as well as those even bigger high school feelings – perhaps the perfect setting for Murphy’s high emotion/low attention span creative whims. Between the constant heartstring snatching and big-name Broadway bravado, it's a show made to assail you into submission on the big screen, where you have no choice but to join the party despite your brain's hesitations.
But as mesmerizing as the muchness can be, a little goes a long way – and unfortunately “The Prom” is more than two hours long.
Despite the advice Emma gives in her first song, there’s little time in Murphy’s movie to just breathe, instead threatening to exhaust the audience with constant subplots, broad moments of comedy and generalizations (it’s occasionally tricky to spot where the characters’ judgmental ways end and the movie’s starts) and emotional crescendos. Adapting their own show, Sklar and Beguelin pack in as much as they can, and combined with Murphy’s everything all the time approach, there’s just not enough room or time to care about it all.
Kidman’s Roxie Hart wannabe, for instance, could be cut from the film completely without missing much – other than the worst song, the oddly childish Fosse tribute “Zazz,” and the distraction of wondering why such overqualified actress would take such an underutilized role. And while it’s nice to see the rare Hollywood movie romance between an older woman and a younger man, the subplot between Streep and Keegan-Michael Key’s star-struck principal always dulls the sugar rush – especially her big forgiveness song “The Lady’s Improving,” positioned as a showstopper. Instead it just actually stops the show and is one of the few numbers without much panache.
It doesn’t help those two songs that they arrive during a long stretch in between the second and third acts where the script stalls Emma’s storyline, and the movie forgets its own premise, letting stars get in the way of its purpose. We piddle around in Dee Dee and Barry’s subplots, established and newly tossed in – in the latter’s case, featuring a glorified cameo from Tracey Ullman, a queen of ham and a choice so distracting you don’t know if there’s a joke coming or not. Suboptimal for what’s supposed to be yet another grand emotional moment.
While we’re on the topic of off-the-mark hamminess, Corden is broadly entertaining enough, but his lispingly mannered performance of the very gay Barry regularly threatens to land on the wrong side of offensive caricature (Corden is straight in real life), sometimes souring the film’s otherwise sweet and good-intended vibes.
By the time “The Prom” returns to, you know, the prom, it’s rushing through key character and emotional beats to get to the ending, with Emma and Trent managing to cure their woes in seemingly a quick song. In Trent’s case, he knocks out centuries of intolerance in a single song about how the bible is an old, outdated book – bet conservatives haven’t heard THAT argument before! Rannells, Pellman, Washington and DeBose are compelling enough screen presences to make them land, and the message is too kind and nice to put down – plus, empathy on screen is always a beeline straight to my tear ducts – but it makes “The Prom” play naively simple at the end, even for a light-hearted musical, and any emotions are more due to sheer bludgeoning force, bordering on sappy, relentlessness than anything truly earned.
But while people recall the ill-fitting tuxes or the crummy dinner or the awkwardly tense high school dramas from prom night, they tend to focus on the good times, the extravagant yet goofy grandeur and the bliss of youthful joy. This “Prom” plays exactly the same way: sometimes great, somtimes embarrassing, but consistently a burst of exuberant and energetic fun and escape worth saying yes to and worth remembering the good over the bad.
"The Prom": *** out of ****
As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.
When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.