The Prom, based on the hit Broadway musical, is really two stories jammed together. Unfortunately, one of those stories is very bad. The other is pretty good, yet the bad one keeps intruding on it. Director Ryan Murphy has taken a “bigger is better” approach to the adaptation, delivering an aggressively in-your-face picture that never fails to drive home an obvious point or offer up an over-the-top performance. I didn't see the play, so maybe the approach works better on the stage. On screen, though, The Prom is by and large a bombastic bore.
The good story involves Emma Nolan (Jo Ellen Pellman, in a stunning debut). All she wants is to take her girlfriend Alyssa (Ariana DeBose) to the prom. However, the leader of the PTA, Mrs. Greene (Kerry Washington), has gotten word of this desire and, sanctimonious fuddy-duddy that she is, cancels the prom altogether. Clearly, The Prom is drawing from real-life headlines involving LGBT students wanting to attend their own proms. It's a potent, timely idea, as is the look at how the resulting chaos impacts the relationship between Emma and Alyssa.
Then there's the other story. Broadway legend Dee Dee Allen (Meryl Streep) and fellow actor Barry Glickman (James Corden) have just opened a new play to disastrous reviews. While commiserating with two other down-on-their-luck actors – Angie Dickinson (Nicole Kidman) and Trent Oliver (Andrew Rannells) – they decide it would be a good idea to take on a “cause” that will bring them some good publicity to help their careers. Of course, the group stumbles upon Emma's situation and decides to rally by her side, whether she wants them to or not. The school principal, Mr. Hawkins (Keegan-Michael Key), is a fan of Dee Dee's, a fact she capitalizes on immediately.
The Prom spends way too much time with the narcissistic actors, who are by far the least compelling part of the film. We get stale jokes about celebrity ego (Dee Dee thinks flashing her Tony Award can get her a better hotel room), gags about stars being out of touch with regular people, and Meryl Streep in another of the “grande dame” turns she's done a lot of lately. Additionally, there's a generic subplot about how Barry's parents rejected him when he came out as a young man. That would be okay, except that James Corden – who is straight – indulges in every outdated gay stereotype that LGBT actors have spent years trying to erase. He also has a tendency, as he does in every film, to yell all his dialogue at top volume.
Watching egotistic Broadway thespians learn to humble themselves could make for a good movie all on its own. However, caring about them is impossible when Emma and Alyssa are right there. Who gives a rip about these people when this teenage girl is being blamed by her peers for ruining the prom? We want to witness her efforts to find strength amid the intolerance surrounding her. We want to see more of the relationship she has with Alyssa and how it's tested by Mrs. Greene's self-righteous actions. Every time The Prom starts really digging in, those pesky actors turn up again, hijacking the movie.
Only once does the film marry the two stories well. That's in a musical number in which Trent follows some of Emma's peers to the mall, then gives them a song-and-dance lesson about the hypocritical ways their own behavior is as “sinful” as how they view homosexuality. Having a tattoo, divorced parents, and masturbation all factor in. It's a terrific scene, masterfully carried out by Rannells. Beyond that, though, the songs are generally unmemorable.
The Prom certainly has a lovely message about the value of inclusion, if not exactly any new viewpoints on the subject. Nevertheless, the fact remains that the more down-to-earth story of the gay teen is infinitely more engaging than the story of the actors helping her for selfish reasons. As far as bad adaptations go, the picture isn't quite Cats-level awful. But Cats was at least awful in ways that were interesting.
out of four
The Prom is rated PG-13 for thematic elements, some suggestive/sexual references and language. The running time is 2 hours and 10 minutes.