If there’s one thing we’ve seen a lot of this year, its celebrities making things all about them. Anyone who cringed their way through Gal Gadot and friends’ Imagine cover in March will know how the rich and famous can often misjudge the tone during hard times. With this in mind, Netflix’s expensive musical The Prom seems perfectly timed. Directed by Ryan Murphy (Glee, American Horror Story) and based on the Broadway show, it combines old school razzle dazzle with very modern issues.
Meryl Streep stars as Dee Dee Allen, a Tony winner and Broadway legend whose latest role, a musical based on the life of Eleanor Roosevelt, has been savaged by critics on opening night. Drowning her sorrows with her co-star Barry Glickman (James Corden), the two see a way to revive their public reputation: attaching themselves to a worthy cause.
They see one in a small town Indiana school, which has cancelled prom after young lesbian student Emma (Jo Ellen Pellman) expressed a desire to attend with her girlfriend. With cronies in tow, Dee Dee and Barry storm the bemused town demanding change, but their efforts cause more problems than they solve.
Like most musical extravaganzas, The Prom grabs you at the start with a big number satirising these actors’ need for attention, and lack of sympathy for the person they are supposedly helping. Even once the group get to Indiana, that insincerity is underlined by Streep’s show-stopping performance of the song It’s Not About Me (“Not Photography/Unless you Instagram it/Use #DeeTakesLocalYokelsByStorm”).
However, the sharp wit soon fades. The film’s main message is one of LGBTQ+ inclusion, of anyone being free to live and love as they please. It’s laudable, but like the self-absorbed celebs of the story this concern can ring hollow.
Pellman’s Emma, and her secret love Ariana (Alyssa Greene), are likeable and avoid stereotyping, with Emma making it clear she simply wants to live her life rather than be a symbol. We don’t get much sense of the people beneath the issues, however, and anyone looking to find themselves reflected in these characters will only see the broadest strokes.
The Prom’s biggest missed opportunity is Corden as Barry, a character with such broad gay tropes he almost singlehandedly undermines the moral the film is trying to put over. Barry is there to make catty remarks, give makeovers, and then quickly resolve a side-plot about his conservative parents. Some have argued that this is what you get when a straight actor plays an LGBTQ+ role, but in this case the culprit is a bad performance rather than lack of perspective.
Hovering around the fringes are a variety of talented performers who do the best with what they have. Best of the group is Kerry Washington as the head of the PTA, a powerful portrayal of someone rigidly sticking to what they believe is right, despite the world telling them otherwise. Andrew Rannells gets the tone just right as an actor who constantly namedrops his Julliard education, while Nicole Kidman is oddly invisible as a chorus girl who doesn’t seem to have much to do.
Saving this jumble from disaster is the top name on the marquee. Streep is glorious as Dee Dee, camping it up for outstanding musical numbers and numerous costume changes. She embodies celebrity narcissism, before briefly dropping the act to deliver a couple of heart-breaking speeches that may just be enough for a few award nominations. She has a sweet romantic entanglement with Keegan-Michael Key as the school’s principle, a fan of hers who believes in the benefits of living a selfless life.
For many, The Prom will be a bawdy bit of nonsense to throw on during the festive period, with enough songs and laughs – and Streep – to dazzle away a couple of hours. However, for a director who has so expertly managed entertainment and insight in the past, the film’s deeper meaning fizzles out in the spotlight.