The Prom, review: James Corden tries to solve homophobia with a musical – and fails

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Tim Robey
·5 min read
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Meryl Streep and James Corden star in a lazy, tiresome, stereotype-perpetuating film from Ryan Murphy - Netflix
Meryl Streep and James Corden star in a lazy, tiresome, stereotype-perpetuating film from Ryan Murphy - Netflix
  • Dir: Ryan Murphy. Cast: Meryl Streep, James Corden, Nicole Kidman, Kerry Washington, Keegan-Michael Key, Andrew Rannells, Jo Ellen Pellman, Ariana DeBose, Mary Kay Place, Tracey Ullman, Kevin Chamberlin. Cert TBC, 131 mins

The Prom, a Broadway musical with a ham-fisted message, has undergone the Ryan Murphy treatment to become a splashy Netflix extravaganza with a cast to make fans of Glee jump up and down with, well, glee. Meryl Streep and James Corden top the bill, playing a pair of conceited musical-theatre veterans who line up a publicity coup by championing LGBT rights in the fictional flyover town of Edgewater, Indiana. They swish in, they sing, they solve homophobia and learn something about themselves.

Murphy, the producer-director-impresario behind this adaptation, has had a busy 2020, launching two new queer-centred series (Hollywood; Ratched) and putting his clout behind the (solid) remake of The Boys in the Band. The deal he struck with Netflix in 2018 is said to be worth as much as $300 million (£225 million). However much of that went directly into The Prom hardly bears thinking about. The whole thing drips with garish insincerity and preaching to the choir. Irony of ironies, that a show about out-of-touch luvvies swanning down to wave their magic wands at red-state intolerance has become… the spitting image of that, as a home cinema offering from Murphy and team.

You’ll need a strong stomach for current Broadway fads in songwriting and “satire” to get through this unscathed. The story kicks off with Dee Dee Allen (Streep) and Barry Glickman (Corden) hogging the red carpet on the opening night of a soon-to-be-cancelled show about FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt, which gets them the worst reviews of their careers. Together with two other washed-up actors, the chorus girl/understudy Angie Dickinson (Nicole Kidman) and daytime TV star Trent Oliver (a relatively buoyant Andrew Rannells), they scour Twitter and cook up a cynical plan to pull out of this rut.

Down in Edgewater, the prom at James Madison High School has just been cancelled, because of a protest marshalled by killjoy PTA chief Mrs Greene (Kerry Washington) about the idea of same-sex couples attending. The only out student is Emma (Jo Ellen Pellman), a friendless lesbian whose life gets worse when the rest of the school blames her, and not the bigotry of their parents, for getting prom scrapped. Secretly, she’s dating Alyssa (Ariana DeBose), the daughter of Mrs Greene, which sets the stage with lazy convenience for everyone to take a step back, re-examine their sympathies, and let the rainbow flag fly.

Liberal school principal Mr Hawkins (an amiable Keegan-Michael Key) is right in the thick of a legal challenge when the quartet of thesps crash in, dragging the spotlight away from Emma and onto themselves. In lambasting these actor-activists as silly, self-serving narcissists, the show is shooting fish in a barrel, but since we’re also cursed with them as its main characters, they have regulation pathos ballads and “hidden depths” you could plumb roughly three seconds after meeting them.

It’s all very much beneath Streep, pressed into a disappointingly thin sketch of self-absorbed divadom that’s half Shirley MacLaine in Postcards from the Edge, cut with her own vampish parody of Broadway egotism, Madeline Ashton from Death Becomes Her. If only it were that much fun. Obsessed with bagging a third Tony award, Dee Dee flings off furs, takes to the school stage and belts out some momentarily diverting but utterly forgettable tunes. (ABBA’s songs, it turns out to no one’s shock, were Mamma Mia!’s salvation.)

In a cast full of talented queer actors in the younger parts, it’s a massive problem to have Corden in gayface front and centre, trying his utmost to own Barry’s tragic experience of leaving home as an unloved 16-year-old. His understanding expressions when Dee Dee offloads about her divorce are enough all by themselves to make you entertain dark thoughts of what might be on Amazon Prime. When he grabs Emma’s hand and whisks her to the mall for a makeover, it’s an insult the film doesn’t even consider, stereotyping the young lesbian as fashion-clueless and the gay man as a bustling Queer Eye nightmare who made this reviewer embarrassed to be batting for the same team. All in all, it’s Corden’s best performance since Cats.

The starry cast of The Prom, with director Ryan Murphy (front, in hat) - Netflix
The starry cast of The Prom, with director Ryan Murphy (front, in hat) - Netflix

Time won’t be kind to The Prom: even the 131 minutes you spend watching it aren’t, particularly. You’ll wonder for long stretches what possessed Kidman, bless her, to tag along, filling the shoes of a sidekick in emerald sheath dresses who dreams of playing Roxie Hart in Chicago but has never got the call. I mean, it’s not too surprising. She pulls big faces (aghast! thrilled! pitying!) and mainly just stands around until her one solo bit, a Bob Fosse homage called “Zazz” which is all flim-flam in Emma’s living room, and a legitimate camp artifact in ways it doesn’t even know. The cringe-o-meter pings off the charts. 

Murphy is many (many) things to many people, but directing films is a long way from his forte, as we already knew from Eat Pray Love. Handling musical sequences just went to the top of tasks he badly needs to delegate to someone else. There’s hardly a scene that goes by in The Prom without a gruesome overload of primary colours, an assault of costumes that look hideous on screen together, or a wide shot that manages to emphasise the dimensions of the sound stage rather than the alleged location.

It made me yearn for the effervescent choreography and tolerable acting of Adam Shankman’s Hairspray, an average but peppy crowd-pleaser which looks like Singin’ in the Rain next to this thing. Or to put it another way, where’s Sissy Spacek’s Carrie when you need her?

In cinemas and on Netflix now