Histrionically Unrestrained Prom a Gleefully Unbearable High School Musical
A rambunctious kaleidoscope of colorful excess, director Ryan Murphy’s (Eat Pray Love) adaptation of Broadway hit The Prom is a hyperactive mess that seems to think turning the volume up to 11 is the key ingredient for musical success. A mixture of heartfelt melodrama and schlocky, treacle-ridden nonsense, this movie both gave me a headache while it also produced a couple of honest tears.
Can I say I liked the movie? No. Will I admit that I was impressed with certain moments and more than a few of the performances? Yes. Would I ever watch it again to see if I’d change my mind and start thinking about it in a more overall positive light? While I’d be open to doing that, its overall obnoxious quotient is so freakishly high I can’t say a return engagement is going to happen anytime soon.
After their expensive Broadway musical based on the life of Eleanor Roosevelt catastrophically flops, megastar Dee Dee Allen (Meryl Streep) and her costar Barry Glickman (James Corden) are inspired by chorus girl Angie Dickinson (Nicole Kidman) and bartender/former child star Trent Oliver (Andrew Rannells) to find some sort of altruistic endeavor that could quickly change the public discourse in their favor. They find just that and more in the form of Indiana high school student Emma Nolan (Jo Ellen Pellman).
The local PTA, led by their haughty, self-righteous president, Mrs. Green (Kerry Washington), has canceled her school’s prom because she’s a lesbian and they can’t bar the senior student from attending with a girlfriend. Fellow seniors are unsurprisingly angry, while school principal Tom Hawkins (Keegan-Michael Key) is determined to get this decision by the PTA overturned and ensure Emma gets to attend with whomever the heck she wants. It’s a volatile situation that only gets more cantankerously bizarre with the arrival of Dee Dee, Barry, Angie and Trent, their supposedly helpful high-profile presence only making the situation worse.
Murphy overdoes it in every way imaginable. The film is in constant motion, rarely slowing down even for the most personal of moments. Characters have to feel things out loud, and any interior machinations that may happen do so more by the strength of an actor’s performance than anything having to do with input from the director. I felt like I was constantly being shouted at, the lack of any subtly whatsoever close to inexcusable.
And yet, there are times when something marvelous inexplicably transpires. One such instance is a glorious musical number with Kidman and Pellman all about Bob Fosse and finding the “zazz.” It’s superbly staged and stupendously played by both actors, the smile on my face entirely authentic. Another is a pivotal number that once again features Pellman, this time matching her up with co-star Ariana DeBose. She plays Emma’s secret girlfriend Alyssa, a popular cheerleader who planned to come out at Prom before it was canceled. There is a heartfelt playfulness to Pellman and DeBose’s interactions as they dance across that screen that’s joyously infectious, and it is here I do admit a few of those aforementioned tears started to fall.
But goodness gracious are moments like these few and far between. For every rhapsodic moment featuring the likes of Key singing about his love for Broadway (as well as for Dee Dee herself) with melodically passionate grandeur, there are so many leaden ones that fall disappointingly flat. While neither Streep nor Corden is bad, they’re both so larger-than-life the majority of the time that the few scenes where they try to tone it down come across as deplorably facile. Only Kidman rises above the fray, her performance a genuine triumph I utterly adored.
The whole thing reminded me of watching Murphy’s hit television series “Glee,” and not the early seasons which helped make the program a pop culture sensation. No, it feels more like the latter ones, the episodes that were all Whiz! and Bang! and Squee! and so much more insincere nonsense that watching the show felt like getting continually punched in the face at a certain point. Sure, moments of sincere emotion slipped in here and there, but overall each episode proved to be more of a test of endurance than anything else, and how devoted viewers stuck all the way until the end is way beyond me.
That’s how I felt watching The Prom. I can see why and how this was a hit on Broadway. The music is great, and the scenario, while not exactly groundbreaking, still easily captures a viewer’s imagination. It’s impressively shot by veteran cinematographer Matthew Libatique (Black Swan), and editors Peggy Tachdjian and Danielle Wang do a fine job coherently cutting all the pieces together into a seamlessly energetic whole.
But even with a star-studded cast and performances from youngsters Pellman and DeBose that should put them on every casting agent in Hollywood’s radar, the histrionically unrestrained presentation of the material did me in. Murphy’s joy in slapping me silly for every second of The Prom’s laborious 130 minutes was more than I could take, this laudably inclusive LGBTQ high school musical a celebratory dance I’d rather not have been invited to attend.
Film Rating: 1½ (out of 4)