The Prom Review

The Prom
When lesbian high-schooler Emma (Jo Ellen Pellman) plans to attend her prom with a girl in small-town Indiana, the head of the PTA (Kerry Washington) shuts the whole bash down. Enter vain, failing Broadway stars Dee Dee Allen (Meryl Streep) and Barry Glickman (James Corden), who hope publicly supporting Emma’s plight will finally earn them some positive publicity.

by Ben Travis |
Updated on
Release Date:

11 Dec 2020

Original Title:

The Prom

In recent years, there’s been a spate of musicals that you’ll enjoy ‘even if you don’t like musicals’, like Hamilton with its astonishing word-wizardry, or the retro-cool La La Land. The Prom is no such musical. It is intensely, unabashedly, razzlingly, dazzlingly Broadway, a musical for people who love musicals, in which many of the songs are about musicals. Anyone allergic to such things need not apply.

The Prom

For everyone else, Ryan Murphy’s first feature directorial effort since 2010’s Eat Pray Love offers an eye-poppingly vibrant finale to a grim year. The Prom — with its ultra-stylish glossy aesthetic, penchant for high kitsch, legendary actresses chewing the scenery, and centring of LGBTQ+ narratives — ticks multiple boxes of the Murphy oeuvre, in an adaptation of Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin’s 2018 stage production. Every scene sparkles, each surface shimmers, and block-colours dominate the frame.

Leading the way is a starry showbiz cast — most of whom have their own Broadway experience — gleefully playing a bunch of narcissistic luvvies. Meryl Streep and James Corden are Dee Dee Allen and Barry Glickman, whose new Eleanor Roosevelt musical lands dire reviews (“What did they not like? Was it the hip-hop?” asks Barry in a Hamilton dig). In response, they plot with fellow thespians Angie Dickinson (Nicole Kidman) and Trent Oliver (Andrew Rannells) to become celebrity activists and earn some positive press, travelling to Edgewater, Indiana, to help openly gay student Emma (Jo Ellen Pellman), whose desire to attend her prom as part of a same-sex couple has sparked uproar from the local community. “We’re gonna help that little lesbian, whether she likes it or not!” sings Glickman.

As ever, Ryan Murphy delivers one hell of a show.

It’s clear all involved are having a blast. Streep in particular camps it up something royal as the deluded Dee Dee, while Kidman quite literally struts into frame in a bright-green sequinned gown for her grand entrance. Corden playing effeminate camp might wrinkle some noses, but Barry is a relentlessly entertaining character, firing out non-stop zingers.

This, though, is Emma’s story, and she gets lost in the mix. Newcomer Jo Ellen Pellman is charming and wide-eyed — reminiscent of a younger Emma Stone — but the character feels thin, the script hinting at horrifying hardships she’s endured without creating space to explore them. In fact, a lack of depth is The Prom’s biggest issue — after a riotous Act One, the second half becomes baggy and unfocused, and the depiction of the town’s intolerant values feels overly simplistic and ill-defined. Ultimately, The Prom is better at satirically skewering Broadway than it is at seriously skewering homophobia, which feels like a missed opportunity.

Still, you’ll root for Emma to end up with Alyssa (Ariana DeBose, Anita in Spielberg’s upcoming West Side Story) come the rousing finale, which visualises the more diverse and inclusive world we could all be living in if bigotry didn’t rear its ugly head. Ultimately, that’s Murphy’s entire raison d’être as a creator — and, as ever, he delivers it in one hell of a show. Not quite a standing ovation, but a big bravo.

The Prom is a loud, proud glitter-ball of a film, and doesn’t pretend to be anything else. It stumbles in the second half and the relentless cheer is a little exhausting, but its energy and wit remains infectious.
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