An uncomfortable performance from James Corden withstanding, this glittering Broadway adaptation hits most of the right notes
After a decade of dominating TV screens with everything from American Horror Story to Glee to this year’s Hollywood (part of a huge nine-figure deal with Netflix), Ryan Murphy returns to feature filmmaking with his first directorial effort since 2010’s Eat Pray Love. Thankfully, The Prom – adapted by Bob Martin and Chad Beguelin from their own Broadway play – is a hell of a lot more fun (and, crucially, more self-aware) than that dreary Julia Roberts vehicle, making for a flawed but irresistibly jolly ode to musicals themselves.
Loosely based on a real-life incident from 2010, The Prom follows four washed-up Broadway stars as they head to a small Indiana town to help a lesbian school kid fight for her right to take a girl to her senior prom, defeating hick bigotry and winning themselves some good publicity all in one fell swoop. It’s a premise ripe for skewering the self-indulgence of liberal New York celebrities, and The Prom generally works best when it has Broadway in its crosshairs, with its examinations of modern American homophobia feeling a little too thin to earn the big emotional beats it’s going for.
Meryl Streep is clearly having a blast as Dee Dee Allen, the wildly narcissistic Tony-winning leader of the troupe who, alongside Andrew Rannells as failed actor Trent Oliver, earns the lion’s share of the film’s laughs. James Corden is less successful, playing actor and writer Barry Glickman in what can only be described as “gay-face,” queening it up a storm in a way that feels profoundly outdated. It’s an issue that falls away a little during the musical numbers, of which there are very many, but Corden has to carry a lot of The Prom’s more sincere moments, which end up getting lost in his very broad performance.
These musical numbers are a mixed bag, too. Some are fantastic – Rannells absolutely runs away with the film with “Love Thy Neighbour,” a spectacular singalong in a mall in which Trent eviscerates the hypocrisy of Bible-based homophobia – but a few miss the mark with either a muddy sound mix or hard-to-follow choreography. This might sound like an odd complaint for a knowingly camp musical, but The Prom is sometimes simply too colourful, the constantly changing palette proving a distraction during songs that should be getting us into the hearts of the characters.
Outside of Corden and a woeful underuse of Nicole Kidman as the group’s fourth member, though, you likely won’t notice a lot of The Prom’s flaws until the credits roll. This is one of the most relentlessly energetic films of the year, barely ever slowing down for the entire 130 minute runtime, carrying you from one scene to the next with no time to reflect before you’re in another song or brightly lit slice of teen drama. Even with his starry adult cast, Murphy carves out a decent chunk of time for the kids around whom the heart of the story revolves. Jo Ellen Pellman makes an impressive film debut as Emma, the girl denied her prom date, but the real breakout here is Ariana DeBose as her secret girlfriend Alyssa.
The Prom is an incredibly busy film – I haven’t even mentioned the conflict between the conservative PTA and the liberal school principle – but Murphy manages to turn this into a major advantage, constantly switching things up and throwing in a song whenever the pace threatens to slacken. It’s hardly going to trouble any best-of-the-year lists, but for two hours of pure restless escapism, you’re in safe hands.
The Prom is now showing in cinemas and will be available to stream on Netflix from 11 December.Where to watch