'The Prom': 'Glee' Redux, TikTok-Level Cringe & A Musical Tweens-Only Vibe [Review]

Beneath the affected spectacle of “The Prom” is a relatively compelling premise: a handful of out of touch New Yorkers— nay, Broadway actors, condescend to a small town under the guise of spreading progressive politics. As the outline for questions about how celebrity functions in the 21st century, how politics becomes more a form of brand and persona maintenance than a praxis that’s embedded into the lives of the people who slap it on, and whether, indeed, east coast elites do know better, “The Prom” had an out with its satire. The Broadway musical with a book by Bob Martin and Chad Beguelin, music by Matthew Sklar, and lyrics by Beguelin, was a show that could get away with naive politics and its frequently misplaced earnestness because it was effective, and for most of its running time, a clever-enough satire of how activism and actor celebrity are, at their core, bizarre bedfellows. And in Ryan Murphy’s film adaptation for Netflix, the show’s flaws seem accentuated, with its spectacle too mismanaged to distract that “The Prom’s” brand of sincerity isn’t necessarily tailored for the screen, or at least not in this form. 

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Even if The Prom” has a very “for musical tweens only” vibe, its winking self-awareness would function to at least neutralize the vaguely TikTok-level cringe of its more blinkered moments. A rogues gallery of self-important New Yorkers — Dee Dee (Meryl Streep), Barry (James Corden), Angie (Nicole Kidman), and Trent (Andrew Rannells) — are agreed upon, even in the city, as unlikable narcissists and, in a dubious gamble to change public opinion by lazily grafting on liberal politics to their public identities, find Emma (Jo Ellen Pellman) in Indiana, who is at the center of a local controversy as she wants to bring a girl to prom and is the only out lesbian in her school. Who better to make a pet project, regardless of her willingness to participate in a publicity stunt? 

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Well, that is the joke, right? As are the plain calls for attention that even its leads seek from the audience at home. But as Streep and Corden, especially, vie for our adoration, the self-reflexive jest takes on a more uncomfortably desperate tone and one that doesn’t feel part of the text. Streep has, for what feels like over a decade, been playing a drag version of Streep herself, leaning into bad habits, grating tics, and heavy sighs that speak less to the character than someone underneath another costume that they’ve barely considered. Streep is here playing a vague, imprecise idea of a stage star whose glow is fading, a performance so archetypal you could mix and match with Maggie Thatcher and Florence Foster Jenkins and still get the gist. Save for a few specific moments, Streep doesn’t seem to channel anyone or anything, not even the low hanging fruit of the light jabs at Patti LuPone (complete with cell phone incident namedrop). Corden, whose affability feels like a con, suits up in gayface. While he mostly slides away from outright galling, the character’s aggressive showmanship has an unusual emptiness about it. There’s a limit to how much one can handle over two hours of flatlining “jokes” about how uncultured Indiana must be, which, in Streep and Corden’s mouths, don’t register as pointed enough to be self-aware and satirical. They’re supposed to be “unlikable,” sure, but not unbearable. 

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These are famous people big enough to make the satire of “The Prom” land assuredly, whose range and career are fertile ground to interrogate their own relationship to politics as brand identity. Yet, it’s only Nicole Kidman who seems to grasp both the show’s oddball tone and the curious questions at hand. As the chorus girl who has yet to be called to play Roxie in “Chicago,” Kidman’s performance is unself-conscious, naturally goofy. Her face turns to an “O” in horror when someone is rejected; she raspily says, “Let’s see what’s trending” while pulling out her phone to look at Twitter, and does so completely in earnest; she makes jazz hands and Fosse shoulder snaps like someone good at it, the way Angie would be. Kidman, who might as well have walked away with the film, seems to have wandered onto the set and found herself completely at home, knowing instinctually what was silly and what was satirical. 

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But the rest of the film’s unsureness with its tone (which, admittedly, was inherited from the show) is a familiar bug with Murphy’s work. There are enough scenes of teens dancing in the halls to make someone genuinely pine for the days of “Glee,” but with that nostalgic reminiscence, one must also be reminded of the whiplash of tones, styles, and directions Murphy’s co-created 2009-era teen musical took. That show, too, shifted uneasily between satire and after school special, at once aspiring towards Alexander Payne-ian heights with its lifts from Election” evident in lead Lea Michele’s narcissistic cutthroat ambition and Jane Lynch’s acid-tongued cheer coach, as well as sweeter programming for the youth, the scent of “Full House” on it during one of its melange of “songs to sum up the episode’s lessons” scenes. And here at “The Prom,” what was once very amusing has trouble landing, its once broad stagey humor underplayed, cut short, or unable to function outside of a packed matinee. Without ever really establishing an appropriate or legible framework for its musical sequences (is this fantasy? Is this naturalism? Is this interior monologue? Is this the tacky commercial Broadway-ification of every teen’s aspiration aesthetic?), “The Prom’s” most serious moments are exaggerated beyond their means, so sanguine in its saccharine sincerity that it stifles. 

Perhaps more frustrating than its recurrent issues with tone is, honestly, its camera work. With cinematography by Matthew Libatique, Murphy is drawn to creating spectacle (in powder blue and noxious pink) but doesn’t know how to locate it or ground it in any particular way. Which is not to say fantasy can’t be random and joyful, but even within that context, there’s a topographical place from which it comes. A film usually invites you into its own sense of logic; “The Prom” doesn’t have one. Gliding cameras and floating lenses miss some of the cooler dancing moments in songs like “You Happened” and “Zazz” (for a counterpoint to that Fosse-inspired scene, watch “Everything Old is New Again” in Fosse’s own “All That Jazz“). The opportunity to create a dialogue between small-town modesty and big city excess is missed during a makeover scene in “Tonight Belongs to You.” An occasional flourish (look at the hands when bullies “pose like thus”) operates like a stab at flare. Still, there’s a lack of explanation of why so much of the musical numbers are shot like the camera is trying to avoid the dancers or cut around them. (Some of its fake sparkles remind one of the 2005 adaptation of “The Producers.”) Murphy’s camera seems as motivated by scraps of an idea (teens! Dancing! Gay teens!) as his stars are. But so much time has passed since Murphy became a TV giant, it feels strange that “The Prom’s” attitude towards gayness should still feel naive after adaptation. 

Arguably, part of the curious tension of the show is whether its gay politics are indeed quaint (admittedly, the show premiered in 2016 in Georgia) or if its audience, presumably coming from a not dissimilar social, ideological bubble as its stars (you don’t have to be in New York to have liberal-ish views), is emblematic of the very political insularity it is lightly critiquing. Not every place is as radical as lefty gay shitposters on Twitter, never mind the West Village, and while the respectable ambition of what is supposed to amount to a fun gay musical for the youth is not absent, it’s a film that comes out less ambitious and more chaste and more dewy-eyed than “Glee” at some of its messiest. Emma herself is disinclined toward the spotlight, a character that works as a foil for the movie’s very aesthetic trademarks. And that’s not bad, but it does call for a different kind of film (or script altogether), with a different sensibility. Its simplicity and inability to reconcile with its leads’ opposing emotional and aesthetic techniques (despite gestures to a more interesting film) hold it back. 

One could call “The Prom” a kind of “Glee”-redux, shorn of its sharp bite, more chaotic inconsistency, and backstage drama. “Glee,” after all, and whether we like it or not, handed young people a rough vocabulary with which to articulate issues of identity politics and personal truth. “The Prom” could be considered a homecoming of sorts for Ryan Murphy, the chance to correct some of the ills of the earlier hit, built with a contained story, so there’s less chance of going off the rails. Yet, while it’s clear in some of his work that Murphy’s politics have evolved or shifted or deepened over time (a gay hairdresser in “AHS: Apocalypse” decries the same values that two gay domestics clamor for in “AHS: Murder House“), Murphy’s Netflix oeuvre can feel at odds with rapidly changing discourse about queerness, queer media, and, as is hinted at in the movie, how queer politics in art may or may not have material impact. He’s branded himself with that idea, as shows like “Pose” and “The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story” have shown him capable of both exploring queer lives in detail and making queer politics as mainstream auteur a viable identity. If “The Prom” is indeed in lineage with “Glee,” a direct descendent for a softer audience perhaps, it’s so odd that a film whose emotional crux is predicated on bravery seems so afraid to use, and revise, the very vocabulary that “Glee” gave it.  [C-]

“The Prom” will be available to stream on December 4 on Netflix.