Bob Martin, Chad Beguelin (Musical, Chad Meguelin, Bob Martin, Matthew Sklar, Jack Viertel)
Meryl Streep. James Corden, Nicole Kidman, Kerry Washington, Keegan-Michael Key, Andrew Rannells, Ariana DeBose, Jo Ellen Pellman, Tracey Ullman, Kevin Charmberlin, Mary Kay Place
Filmmaker Ryan Murphy has been the belle of the television ball for more than a decade now, having turned sensational high school musical Glee into a phenomenon and brought us the frightening anthology series American Horror Story with countless other well-regarded projects in between. Yet, the big screen has never been his playground. The Prom, released on streaming platform Netflix, won’t be his graduation into the big leagues.
Based on the hit Broadway musical of the same name, four faded Broadway stars (Meryl Streep, James Corden, Nicole Kidman, Andrew Rannells) descend on a repressed Indiana town to protest the cancellation of the prom because a young lesbian (Jo Ellen Pellman) wants to bring her girlfriend and the religious bigots would rather cancel it for everyone than allow someone who goes against their principles to be included. As the four selfish has-beens try their best to make the events about themselves, their own insecurities and frailties become liabilities, leading towards a heart-rending outcome for all involved.
Pellman is a superstar in the making with a voice as gorgeous as her soul. As Emma Nolan, the only out lesbian in her entire high school, she tries her best to stand tall against the animosity she receives due to the prom’s cancellation. Meanwhile, her closeted girlfriend (Ariana DeBose) struggles internally with her choice to admit to the world she’s gay too, especially since her mother (Kerry Washington) is head of the PTA and is the lead cheerleader for efforts to quash an all-inclusive prom.
Corden is horrendously miscast as Barry Glickman. There’s a scene early in the film when the theatre critic for the New York Times excoriates his character’s portrayal of the wheelchair-bound FDR in his new musical alongside Streep’s Dee Dee Allen as Eleanor. The words that describe his in-film theatrical performance could just as easily have been written about Corden himself. Considering the bountiful amount of gay talent in Hollywood and on Broadway, why could they not have found someone else to play the role who wouldn’t ham it up in the most tone-deaf, effete portrayal one could have imagined. Corden nails most of his musical numbers, but the whole thing feels utterly fake, as do the personalities of the characters played by Streep, Kidman, and Rannells. Ultimately, though, Corden is the only one who doesn’t entirely survive his early-film performance.
Murphy has been a strong proponent of inclusive casting, having made nearly every one of his efforts a safe place for people of color, the LGBTQ community, and actors of many sizes to thrive. It’s a bit surprising then that Murphy would shift as far outside the acceptable with this choice.
As to the rest of the cast, this is the best I’ve seen from Streep in some time, affected perhaps, but incredibly strong musically. How she could have been asked to deliver such mediocre turns in Into the Woods and Mary Poppins Returns is surprising. This film tells me that she’d be a brilliant addition to the cast of Follies should that musical ever translate from stage to screen. I wouldn’t go so far as to say she’d make a great Norma Desmond in the long-delayed Sunset Boulevard musical, but if Glenn Close chooses not to take the part in the film version she’s producing, Streep would be an adequate substitution.
Kidman is largely charming in her performance, especially her one-on-one session with Pellman late in the film; however, her line delivery is frequently garbled. Whether that’s by intention or due to some issue Kidman was having with her voice during filming isn’t exactly clear. Rannells doesn’t have exactly the same issue, but his late-film showstopper “Love Thy Number” is an exuberant, expansive number set in a mall and yet it feels like it was copied from The Book of Mormon, that familiarity and his snarky delivery make this particular performance feel forced. Elsewhere in the film, he’s a perfectly affable presence.
Taking the vainglorious Broadway actors out of the equation, Pellman and DeBose have a sweet, intoxicating relationship bolstered by an amazingly supportive, hardly recognizable Tracey Ullman and an only slightly out of his depth Keegan-Michael Key. Pellman is the best reason to see the film and while some of the musical numbers don’t quite land, they are all boisterous and joyous in their own ways with the film’s finale rightly earning the tears it elicits. Is it a hokey finale? Perhaps. Is it a predictable one? Certainly. Does it still make the audience overjoyed? Absolutely.
Potentials: Actress (Meryl Streep)
December 21, 2020