The Prom
Credit: Melinda Sue Gordon/NETFLIX

The Prom opens with an announcement that’s become familiar to us all in recent months: An event (specifically, the one of the title) has been canceled.

Even worse, it’s not even for a good reason, like invisible death at every corner: The villainous president of the PTA (Kerry Washington) says she must call off the local high school’s dance entirely because one of the students, Emma (talented newcomer Jo Ellen Pellman), wishes to attend it with her girlfriend, Alyssa (Ariana DeBose), and the rules clearly state that same-sex prom dates are forbidden. Rather than get in trouble about “civil rights” or whatever other liberal nonsense, better to just cancel the rite of passage entirely.

Based on the 2018 Broadway musical of the same name and directed by small-screen razzle-dazzler Ryan Murphy, The Prom was absolutely never going to be just the heartfelt tale of a girl finding courage and teaching acceptance in the face of intolerance. No, we must now journey to New York City to meet a quartet of completely unrelated musical theater actors: Dee Dee, an aging diva (Meryl Streep); Barry, an established but unsatisfied star (James Corden); Trent, a pretentious Juilliard grad bartending between gigs (Andrew Rannells); and Angie, a Fosse-worshiping showgirl too often relegated to the chorus line (Nicole Kidman).

After Dee Dee and Barry get ruinous reviews for their latest show, the four struggling thespians read about Emma on Twitter and decide to adopt her fight as their own cause célèbre to drum up some good publicity. They hop on a Godspell tour bus to Indiana, where they try to help Emma get her inclusive prom. Over the course of a big mess of a “plot” — for lack of a better word — the humble Hoosiers remind the New Yorkers of who they are deep down under all the Broadway sparkle, and the showfolk teach the small-minded small-towners that the world is big enough for all kinds of different people.

The Prom is narratively sloppy, emotionally false, visually ugly, morally superior, and at least 15 minutes too long (a strong case can be made for 30). It has good intentions, though; or at least it wants to have good intentions. Obviously — and positively! — the film preaches tolerance and inclusion, both of which the world needs more of. What the world does not need more of are lines like, “There must be a way to rid this community and by extension the nation of this cancer of intolerance,” which are real words that poor Andrew Rannells was forced, I would guess at gunpoint, to utter on-camera. At what point does preaching tolerance become so preachy that it's intolerable? (My vote goes to a cheesily staged viral-video musical number, but The Prom has many great candidates.)

Regrettably, much of the film's humor comes in the form of musical theater in-jokes. In addition to being merely unfunny, however, those winking, meta allusions to showbiz types and Broadway moments also invite us to read into the casting, too (not that there was ever any danger of these stars “disappearing” into their characters, who bear too little resemblance to real human people to credibly blend into any actor portraying them). We are supposed to recognize that these people are played by Streep and Kidman and, most bafflingly, Corden. This is oddly depressing in the case of Kidman, game and glamorous though she is, who deserves so much better. It's also disorienting to see Rannells, noted Broadway believer, sing a lyrically clumsy song about hypocrisy in the Bible — is that reminder of a much better tune supposed to be another reference?

The least off-putting piece of casting might be Keegan-Michael Key as Tom, the school’s principal standing with Emma to fight for a prom for everyone (which the film treats as little more than him doing his job). His scenes with Dee Dee are a breath of fresh air amid the soggy musical mania filling the rest of the movie. One of The Prom's grossest ironies, however, is that Tom serves the thread of the plot that is the diva’s reformation; he leads Dee Dee to discover the joy and healing that can be found in helping others rather than glorifying oneself, and reminds her of the true service that her work can provide. He loves musical theater. It’s an escape from the cruelties of reality. It’s our world, but better and brighter and braver. She gives that to people. That, in itself, is heroic.

That’s a nice sentiment. We all value the arts, or we wouldn’t be optimistically watching The Prom. But let’s recap: Kind, thankless Tom — an inevitably underpaid high school administrator who is Black, who lives in a town that we know nothing about except that it’s hateful, and who is the only person in that community publicly advocating for a scared and lonely teenage lesbian to retain the small dignity of attending her own prom — exists in this narrative primarily to teach a wealthy white celebrity that she has something to offer, and to emotionally enable her to be a hero of this story.

The way Murphy’s film fails Tom is emblematic of how much it misses the point of its own message. The Prom claims to celebrate courage, being true to oneself, standing up for what you believe in, blah blah blah. Those are all lovely ideas when presented with a bit of nuance or insight, but they’re undercut by the fact that the movie belongs not to the people with the painful problem, who actually overcome something difficult, but the quartet of invaders. There’s no people like show people, right? It’s hard to be moved by something so deeply self-congratulatory.

Some of the songs have charm. The cast is undeniably talented. But ultimately, the film has way too much in common with the egomaniacs at its center: It poses for an undeniably good cause, but its greater purpose is to collect the credit for having done it. D

The Prom hits Netflix Dec. 11.

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