Every now and then a film comes along with its heart gaudily emblazoned on its sleeve, waggling jazz hands of neediness and plaintively pleading to be loved. A film which shoots for the moon but putters out like a spent firework before it has cleared the treetops. A film like The Prom.
Emma Nolan (Jo Ellen Pellman) is a smalltown high school student making a big stand. Or, more accurately, forced to stand up and demand her right to bring the person she loves to the prom, just like everyone else. Emma’s sexual orientation isn’t a problem for her principal Mr Hawkins (Keegan-Michael Key) but the PTA – led by inflexible tiger mom Mrs Greene (Kerry Washington) – would rather cancel prom entirely than embrace inclusivity.
The decision leaves Emma isolated at school and the target of a particularly bitchy clique. Popular cheerleader Alyssa Greene (Ariana DeBose) is the only one to empathise and try, in her gentle way, to shut the sneering down. Happily help is on the way; a pair of narcissists, fresh from their Broadway flop, are on the Godspell tour bus speeding towards Indiana to cynically exploit Emma’s Twitter trending struggle for PR points!
Dee Dee Allen (Meryl Streep) and Barry Glickman (James Corden) are convinced their jaw-dropping Eleanor Roosevelt biopic will be a smash until a scathing first-night review shatters their dreams. For a needy star like Dee Dee, the rejection is unbearable and any hopes for Barry’s longed-for Tony have been dashed. At the deserted Eleanor! party, jobbing actor Trent (Andrew Rannells) and lifelong chorus ‘girl’ Angie (Nicole Kidman) pick up the pieces of the duo’s self-esteem and inspire their daft Emma plan.
Trent and Angie decide to come along for the ride and extend The Prom’s runtime further with their own clunky and unnecessary songs (for reasons that remain inexplicable but become more irritating with every passing moment) and herein lies the problem with The Prom. The Prom is a series of ego trips, pasted together into a movie about ego trips masquerading as a touching musical. And at times that irony – together with James Cordon’s caricature delivery – becomes unbearable.
To focus on the positives (as the script demands Emma must do, wandering around with a smile while her time in the spotlight is hijacked by romantic subplots, James Corden’s lack of subtlety and Tracey Ullman in terrible ageing make-up), Emma and Alyssa’s tentative bond is sweet and their Dance With You duet is rather lovely. And Mr Hawkins’ allyship is refreshing to see, even if it is taking place in a movie which feels curiously dated. As Hawkins, Keegan-Michael Key gives a nuanced, actively moving performance, even if the forgettable songs are unworthy of him.
The starry cast is kind of unworthy too or out of place at least. Director Ryan Murphy has a breadth of musical experience and his work on Pose demonstrates that he can write diverse experiences with sensitivity and nuance. However, none of those skills shine here and he straddles a creaky seesaw between wildly differing tones. Kidman, Streep, Rannells and Corden seem to have jigsaw pieces of backstory purely so elaborate set pieces can be crowbarred in for them. Their characters remain underdeveloped even as their performances are overblown.
By contrast, Emma’s world is one dimensional and appears made for TV. The Prom is based on a Broadway musical but the musical was inspired by events at a Mississippi high school in 2010 and the diversity dialogue has evolved since then. Emma’s experiences are never set in any context – we know nothing about the town and next to nothing about her wider life – when she says she wants to do the prom ‘her way’ we have no idea what that means. I’d gladly lose some maneating, scenery-chewing Streep scenes (fun as she is) for Emma in 3D.
In 2015 the Jem and the Holograms movie (total guilty pleasure) felt anachronistic and that was based on an ‘80s cartoon. Yet here Murphy has Emma in the same scenario Jerrica was then; singing out her truths across the internet and reaching kindred spirits. Like her dance with Alyssa, it is cute but it also feels out of place and time. If The Prom was intended for younger children the simplicity and lack of edge might make sense but the Hollywood heavy-hitters suggest higher aspirations making such wishy-washiness inexcusable.
Upbeat, fun to look at and festooned with big names, The Prom – with its dazzling cast, forgettable songs and soul-crushing length – is this Christmas’s emotional crash and burn. It is packed full of demonstrably good intentions but brimming with tactlessness, wasteful of Washington and woefully miscast. A jolly good edit, to remove Kidman entirely and some of the erroneous songs, an exchange of Rannells for Corden and a centring of Emma at the heart of the story could have really made this something.
The Prom opens at selected cinemas today and will be available on Netflix from 11th December