Sequins and elaborate dance numbers have a special place in the Collab; partly as musicals feel written exclusively to lift our spirits (and ours alone), but largely because we are here for any and everything over-the-top. This week’s pick has plenty of sparkle and choreography for days–does it offer the degree of delight we anticipate from a Broadway adaptation?
After learning of an Indiana teen whose prom is cancelled after she asks another girl to the dance, several Broadway performers team up to save the day and demonstrate their selflessness as activists.
In small-town Indiana, the local PTA stirs up controversy by cancelling the year’s prom–a move widely regarded as all high schooler Emma’s fault. You see, Emma is the only out lesbian at her school. When she decided she’d like to invite another young woman to the dance as her date, PTA crusader Mrs. Greene (Kerry Washington) lost her damn mind. Rather than refuse Emma’s request and allow a same-sex couple at the prom, the PTA responds by cancelling the dance altogether (largely to avoid being sued in a clear-cut case of discrimination).
Meanwhile, Broadway stars Dee Dee and Barry are having an even more difficult time (apparently). As it turns out, their egos may be a teensy bit inflated and it’s possible they demonstrate more than one trait of a narcissistic personality disorder…which becomes painfully clear when yet another production (Eleanor: The Eleanor Roosevelt Musical, which, for the record, I would see) is cancelled on opening night because of its unlikeable stars.
As Dee Dee and Barry catch up with perpetual chorus girl Angie and bartender between gigs (and former sitcom star) Trent, they decide their best shot to make a comeback is through celebrity activism. Learning of Emma’s cause, they tag along with Trent’s non-union tour of Godspell, conveniently traveling right through the heart of Indiana. Or whichever region of Indiana it’s meant to be.
Before we move on, I feel it’s important to recognize that these characters are played by Meryl Streep (brilliant, obv), Andrew Rannells (exuding Broadway energy), Nicole Kidman (looking very much the part of dancer but in a role whose purpose I don’t fully understand), and…James Corden. (Keegan-Michael Key is in this too, but we haven’t gotten to him yet.) There are a lot of problems with this film that have nothing to do with James Corden. I can’t blame him for everything. However, I do believe it’s impossible to fully enjoy this film at all if you (a) think James Corden was horribly miscast and playing an uncomfortable stereotype, (b) find James Corden smug and irritating regardless of his role, or (c) all of the above. We will revisit this later (believe we will revisit this), but I think you really need to envision these actors to better appreciate the experience of watching this film. And the extent to which it attempts to ride on their coattails.
Returning to our regularly scheduled recap: our 4 Broadway performers make a grand entrance at a PTA meeting in an attempt to teach the small-minded folks of a backwards Indiana town the error of their ways. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this doesn’t have the intended effect. However, on the front of small personal victories, Principal Tom Hawkins (Keegan-Michael Key, no longer dressed as a dapper yet sinister nutcracker), lifelong Broadway fan, secretly thrills at meeting Dee Dee IRL.
While our team of 4 is determined to make Emma’s plight into a cause, Emma herself is less enthused about being in the spotlight. After the prom is back on, she is relieved that the fight is over. Meanwhile, Barry and the others are pleased to focus on important matters like Emma’s outfit for the dance. Though her date backs out, not yet ready to make their relationship public, Emma is nevertheless excited to celebrate with her newfound friends.
As Dee Dee learns more about Emma’s story, including being kicked out by her parents after coming out as a lesbian, she also learns about Tom’s reverence for the theater. Dee Dee is herself a small-town girl still recovering from a nasty divorce. Barry shares a difficult Midwestern past too, hailing from Ohio, where he was rejected by his parents after coming out as gay.
Just when things seem to be wrapping up nicely (and early!), the PTA pulls a total dick move and holds two proms: one that is “inclusive” for Emma to attend, and a real one for everyone else. Apparently the entire town gaslights Emma and doesn’t tell her the location of the real prom, leaving her all alone at the dance. With more loose threads to tie than ever before, can Barry find peace, Dee Dee and Tom happiness, an entire small town acceptance, and Emma her own form of expression to speak her truth? Phew.
3/5 Pink Panther Heads
Ugh, I find James Corden so smug and irritating. And not in the period drama “I can’t stand him but secretly fantasize about him emerging from a pond in a white shirt” way. I just don’t like him, his sense of humor, or the attention-seeking vibes that ooze from him at all times (though I’ve gotten quite a lot of enjoyment from “Carpool Karaoke”). He’s gotten a lot of criticism for his role in The Prom, though I’ve got to question many of the parties involved who decided to cast him too. It’s disappointing to see a straight man play a total stereotype of a gay character in a movie about fairness for the LGBTQ community. I would have killed to see Titus Burgess in this role.
Beyond Corden, there are several other major problems I can’t overlook. First, there are really two different tones the film strives for, and they are essentially incompatible. The film wants to be a satirical take down of celebrity activists who are completely out of touch with reality. At the same time, it tries to teach (an incredibly heavy-handed) lesson about acceptance. These two conflicting goals constantly undercut each other by trying to poke fun at our characters while simultaneously humanizing them. I quite like the old “Hollywood winkingly underscores its own hypocrisy” theme, but it was insufferable here. Another person I would have liked to see involved with this project? Rachel Bloom. Some of Meryl Streep’s lines already felt right out of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.
My other issue here is the number of characters, and it’s never really clear who is the star. I think(?) the star is supposed to be Emma, but she’s a less interesting character than any of the members of our Broadway troupe. But even among these characters, the focus is constantly shifting, attempting to give each a satisfying backstory that will bring them to life. The result is that most of them feel like sketches, and we don’t get to see any of the supposed growth they experience.
Finally, the film’s insistence on wrapping things up so tidily and sweetly grates on my nerves. I do support the film’s message, even if it’s approximately as subtle as gay fetus holiday classic A New York Christmas Wedding (RIP, Azrael Gabison). And I think it’s important to make films about LGBTQ characters that aren’t a total downer. But I can’t wholly enjoy an ending that sweeps everything under the rug so that all of the characters can have a fun musical number at the end. It’s all very cute, but it feels empty when seriously the only thing a bunch of homophobic teens needed to change their mind was a song about loving your neighbor. FFS, even Mrs. Greene is smiling at the end and throwing hugs around after she spent the entire film bullying, harassing, and discriminating against a teenager.
What I find most frustrating is seeing the potential of this film, but then watching as it ultimately falls flat.
However, I will give this film major points for my new favorite mantra, “picture a Xanax in your hand” (though it’s really a Broadway lyricist who deserves credit there). And the costumes and choreography are as stunning as you’d expect to see in a Broadway production. As an added bonus, perhaps this will be the first film that some people associate with Indiana, aka land of Mike Pence, from now on. It gives me perhaps a problematic level of enjoyment to think about how much that would pain him.
I could see how this could scratch the Broadway itch for people missing live theater at the moment; on the other hand, I could see how another type of theater fan would regret that they didn’t simply watch 42nd Street on Great Performances (again).