It’s directed by Ryan Murphy, who has carved a lucrative production career out of taking an enthusiastically histrionic line on just about everything. His credits include Glee, Pose and American Horror Story. The Prom makes it very clear that he sees no reason to change his ways now.
I once read that Streep will do anything if it gives her the opportunity to sing and this film gives me every reason to believe it. Wearing scarlet lipstick, a hennaed wig and a surfeit of sequins, she bursts into song at every opportunity as Dee Dee Allen, a Broadway diva whose career is on the slide after the failure of her latest show. She and James Corden’s Barry Glickman have been co-starring in a play about Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt that has come adrift because audiences have been unable to accept these inveterate show ponies as characters possessed of a social conscience.
Their reputations, they decide, are desperately in need of a lacquering of gravitas and their friend,Angie (Kidman) is also in a slump, having spent too long in the chorus of Chicago. A news item, however, delivers just the cause they need. A gay high school student in Indiana has been banned from taking her girlfriend to the school prom. Wasting no time, they set out for Indiana to bless her campaign with a little of their star shine.
All up, is not a bad premise on which to drape a showbiz comedy but nobody can relax for long enough to let these characters breathe. Streep seems to be taking her cues from Sunset Boulevard’s Norma Desmond, with lots of arm-waving and relentlessly resonant enunciating, while Corden’s Barry, who’s gay, bounces along at her side sharing beauty tips and dispensing fashion advice.
Their campaign is handicapped from the start by the fact that their fame hasn’t made much of an impression in this particular pocket of middle America. Dee Dee’s one fan is the school principal (Keegan-Michael Key) and he’s already on the side of the gay couple, Emma (Jo Ellen Pellman) and Alyssa (Ariana Debose). Nonetheless, Dee Dee is impressed. Not only is he a straight man who likes musicals, he’s highly personable. What’s more, he’s under the misapprehension that she’s as good and as generous as the characters she’s portrayed on stage.
The girls themselves give the film’s best performances, freshening it up with their ability to behave as human beings feeling no compulsion to suck the juice out of every joke. Debose got the part after roles in Hamilton and Spielberg’s forthcoming screen version of West Side Story but this is Pellman’s first film and she has a sweet voice and a way of conveying Emma’s guilelessness without being twee about it.
Barry immediately appoints himself her fairy godmother and takes her shopping while Angie leads her in a musical duet about the importance of not giving in to her critics, who happen to be led by Alyssa’s mother (Kerry Washington), the president of the school’s PTA.
Like most of the show’s tunes, this one is fun but it falls far short of sending you home longing to hear it again. There’s not much fizz in any of the numbers until we get to the prom, which was filmed two months after the rest of the film. With three days to go, production was shut down by the COVID restrictions and it wasn’t until a production plan was devised with the help of a team of epidemiologists that Murphy and his crew were able to resume. And it looks as if they’re welcoming the chance to cut loose.