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Thursday, December 17, 2020

The Prom


When I saw The Prom on the Broadway stage in 2018, it was a scrappy little underdog show that had to compete for attention amongst the bigger, flashier productions.  It was never a huge hit and did not even last a full year in its run, but it managed to get some Tony nominations, and developed a loyal fanbase with audiences who saw it.  This cinematic take from director Ryan Murphy (TV's Glee) is star-studded, overblown, over performed, and filled with flash and glitz from top to bottom.  In other words, it completely misses what made the original musical special to people.

I understand the need to "open up" a stage musical when it is adapted for the screen, and expand upon it for the film medium.  But I think the filmmakers have gone about it the wrong way here.  They've filled it with fantasy sequences, inflated production numbers that are more busy than fun, and CG-fueled backdrops that are simply distracting.  It gets to be a bit crass as it goes through its over two hour run time, and eventually the talented cast that the film managed to gather gets swallowed up by the gaudiness surrounding them.  Not that actors like Meryl Streep, James Corden, Nicole Kidman, Andrew Rannells, and Keegan-Michael Key aren't trying to stand out here.  They get to have their moments, but the production they're in is just too inflated and bloated for them to truly grab our attention.  And so, a lot of the time, they seem to be trying to go as big as the film itself with their performances, creating a level of camp that feels a bit off.

The film opens in the small town of Edgewater, Indiana, where a Senior at James Madison High School named Emma Nolan (newcomer Jo Ellen Pellman) just wants to take her girlfriend to the school prom, but finds the head of the PTA, Mrs. Greene (Kerry Washington), standing in her way.  Rather than have a female couple attending, Greene decides to cancel the event, which leads to the entire student body blaming Emma for there being no prom that year.  Emma has some support, mostly in the form of the school's principal Tom Hawkins (Keegan-Michael Key) and her Grandma Bea (Mary Kay Place), but mostly she feels alone.  It's never been easy for Emma, since her parents forced her to leave home when she came out to them a few years ago, and the only hope she sees is to leave Indiana as soon as she can.  ("Note to Self: People Suck in Indiana", she sings.)

Meanwhile in New York City, Broadway legends Dee Dee Allen (Meryl Streep) and Barry Glickman (James Corden) are facing the worst reviews of their career after the opening night of their flop musical, "Eleanor!", about the life and times of Eleanor Roosevelt and F.D.R.  The show, which apparently employed a lot of hip hop in its numbers, is savaged by the critics, with one recommending that anyone considering buying a ticket to use the money to buy some rope and hang themselves instead.  With the show's Opening Night also becoming its Closing Night, the two retire to the bar at the legendary bar and grill of the Great White Way, Sardi's, where they are joined by two other Broadway veterans also having a rough night.  Angie Dickinson (Nicole Kidman) has been in the chorus in the musical Chicago for 20 years, and has never been offered a more prominent role.  And the bartender serving them is Trent Oliver (Andrew Rannells), who despite graduating from Juilliard (a fact he feels the need to tell everyone who crosses his path), is still more famous for his stint on an early 90s sitcom.  

Facing career meltdowns, the four actors decide that they need to improve their image by finding a worthy cause and publicizing their social justice efforts.  Angie stumbles upon Emma's story, which has been trending lately, and they decide it's the perfect scenario to rally behind.  They hop aboard a bus to Indiana, and immediately barge their way into the situation, getting behind Emma whether she wants them to or not.  Just like in the original stage production, there are some gentle barbs about celebrities who get involved with social causes, as well as some funny theater in-jokes about celebrity stunt casting that some long-running shows employ to keep going.  The film also has the same tuneful songs, enthusiastic choreography, and genuinely sweet moments that I remember.  Just like when I saw it two years ago, I liked the gradual romantic relationship that grows between Dee Dee and Principal Tom Hawkins, who is revealed to be a major theater nerd, and is one of the few people who seems delighted by the celebrities descending upon their little town.

But this movie just kicks everything up to a very obnoxious and plastic level that it didn't need to.  The Prom did not need to be an extravagant production filled with huge set pieces, CG backdrops, and an overall tone that would be right at home in a Las Vegas production.  Everything's blown up here, even the performances, which make them seem much more forced than they should be.  There are a few moments here that work, such as Key's number about what theater means to him, and why it's so important.  But so much of the movie is played broadly and with such extravagance that it drowns out its ultimate message about tolerance, and its satire of celebrities rallying around social justice in order to boost sagging careers.  It's all there, but it never works as well.  Even the number Emma sings to her girlfriend about how she doesn't "need a big production", and just wants to dance with the one she loves at the prom has sadly been turned into, yes, a big production.  If that's not missing the point, I don't know what is.


All this movie does is prove that the material worked much better when it was played modestly on the stage.  By adding a starry cast, a huge budget, and a lot of over the top theatrics, the little show so many fell in love with becomes a plastic, grinning monstrosity.  It's not that the script has deviated from the original.  It's just that Ryan Murphy's style is all wrong for it, and he probably should have been passed over for someone who would let these characters shine, instead of fighting for our admiration against a garbled epic vision. 

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