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Non-Review Review: The Prom

The Prom arrives on Netflix as part of director Ryan Murphy’s deal with the streaming service, similar to the adaptation of The Boys in the Band.

On one level, The Prom is perfectly suited to Murphy’s aesthetic as a director. It is an adaptation of a Broadway musical about Broadway musicals, one that collides with a stereotypical depiction of the American heartland in a way that invites a heightened and almost caricatured version of both. The Prom is a larger than life production, and feels very much of a piece with Murphy’s output as writer, director and producer – from American Horror Story to Ratchet to Glee. There is no sense that any approach to The Prom could ever be “too much”, and so it’s a good fit for Murphy.

Making a whole production of it.

At the same time, The Prom ultimately feels rather empty. Murphy is very good at offering stylised hyperreal worlds, but The Prom feels like a hollow confection. This problem is compounded by a tonal issue; the movie is never entirely sure how cynical or how earnest it wants to be, and so is frequently caught halfway between extremes. The Prom never seems entirely sure whether it’s a brutal parody of feel-good nonsense or a triumphant example of escapist entertainment, so it never works in either register.

This is a shame, given the talent involved in the production and the occasional momentum that the film manages to build through its high-energy song-and-dance numbers and its game cast. Sadly, though, it never manages to hit the high notes that it needs to.

It’s a bit Broad(way)…

The basic plot of The Prom concerns a group of Broadway actors coming fresh off the humiliation of a critically and commercially disastrous stage musical about the life of Eleanor Roosevelt. (It is titled, not especially creatively, “Eleanor!”) Desperate to rehabilitate their brand, the performers search desperately for a trending topic to which they might attach their names, and in doing so cultivate a heroic and heartwarming comeback narrative. The settle on the story of Emma Nolan, a young lesbian in Indiana who has been told that she cannot bring her date to prom.

The premise immediately positions The Prom as a particular brand of modern pop entertainment. It is a story about performative activism, designed to mock and ridicule those out-of-touch liberal elites who live on the coast and lack any tangible understanding of life in the so-called “real” America. It’s a common refrain in a post-Trump world, reflected in the sort of introspection implicit in projects like Hillbilly Elegy, but more directly in terms of self-flagellating projects like Irresistible or Coastal Elites.

The other side of the street…

The Prom isn’t quite as interested in the same “progressives opposed to systemic problems are their own worst enemy” self-interrogation ego-trip that defines those projects. After all, the film is at least optimistic enough to suggest that maybe confronting homophobia is a good thing to do, and that maybe engaging in conversation about it can change minds, and that maybe some of the disconnect between the heartland and the coast is down to systemic problems like lack of access to educational resources.

At the same time, The Prom does suggest that the cast’s “heavy-handed activism” serves to escalate tensions and make things worst, while playing into various clichés about performative activism that are tired clichés at this point. More than that, The Prom fails to pick a lane. The film starts out by suggesting that Dee Dee Allen and Barry Glickman are on a self-serving ego-trip that will likely harm Emma more than it will help her, but it lacks the cynicism to follow that idea through to its core, and so inevitably Dee Dee and Barry grow into better people.

The toast of the town.

The Prom suffers because it’s too cynical to properly sell its inevitably earnest conclusion, but also because it’s too achingly sincere to convincingly peddle its early cynicism. The Prom initially looks to be mocking the entertainment industry’s self-serving narratives and tendency to pat itself on the back for its own self-importance. (In the movie’s opening number, Dee Dee and Barry laud Eleanor! as “a show that’s so inspiring, it’s almost impossible to sit through.”) However, it inevitably indulges in the same trite clichés that it so knowingly mocks.

The Prom expects the audience to laugh at the self-importance of Dee Dee and Barry believing that their shows can change the world, but then also expects viewers to melt when the local principle Tom Hawkins talks about how going to Broadway during the summer was an escape to him. The Prom never strikes a convincing balance between either outlook, and so veers sharply from one to the other. As a result, the film fails to land either argument – whether deflating the egos of the Broadway stars or insisting on the importance of what they represent.

Eleanor encore!

This is a shame, because there are individual elements of The Prom that work well in isolation. As befitting a stage musical translated to screen, Murphy adds a layer of heightened reality to his staging. Even outside of musical numbers, the town at the centre of the story seems more imagined than real – the lunch benches at the school are freshly painted and look like they’ve never been used, the domestic settings look like something from a sitcom rather than real life.

Murphy and cinematographer Matthew Libatique shoot The Prom in strong and vibrant colours. There’s something very clever in the way that the film’s stereotypically wholesome environments shift sharply during musical numbers – everything is lit in bold and strong hues, as if the cast have brought a little of Broadway with them to Indiana. To be clear, Murphy doesn’t necessarily reinvent the stage-to-screen adaptation. The Prom feels quite like Adam Shankman’s adaptation of Hairspray, albeit with appreciably weaker source material.

Out in Indiana.

Most of the cast in The Prom appear to be having a good time. There’s nobody offering a career-best performance, but Murphy relies on casting mostly charismatic actors to help buoy the material. Nicole Kidman is somewhat underused, but is a welcome presence. There’s something surprisingly sweet in the relationship that develops between Meryl Streep as Dee Dee and Keegan-Michael Key as Hawkins. As with The Boys in the Band, watching Andrew Rannells, it is easy to see why the act is so in-demand on stage.

That said, there is something mildly frustrating in the way that The Prom gives so much space over to the older cast members. The story is built around a criticism of these theatre veterans travelling to Indiana and hijacking Emma’s narrative, but the film never affords Emma the space to reclaim her story from these interlopers. Jo Ellen Pellman and Ariana DeBose make a charming teenage couple, and it is a shame that The Prom declines to spend more time with them.

Staging an intervention.

For a film that should be positioned firmly within Murphy’s wheelhouse, The Prom is something of an underwhelming effort.

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