Ryan Murphy became a brand with his TV show Glee, replete with beautiful teens, misguided-yet-passionate adults, and splashy musical numbers that came out nowhere. Ryan’s latest project, The Prom (Netflix), is Glee on steroids.
But this movie isn’t exactly as it sells itself. Big stars are splashed across the trailer and commercials, but it’s talented, unknown actors carrying the show. It sells itself as centering around over-the-top celebrities reveling in their over-the-topness, but the excess is a glitzy background for a heartwarming story.
Making A Splash
The Prom is a splashy, big screen version of the splashy Broadway play. It starts with a splashy opening number with Dee Dee Allen (Meryl Streep) and Barry Glickman (James Corden) celebrating the big opening of their play Eleanor!, with her playing Eleanor Roosevelt and Barry as FDR. They think it’s a smash, the critics think otherwise, panning the show and their narcissism. And while drowning their sorrows at Sardi’s, they’re joined by Angie (Nicole Kidman), a life on the chorus line, and Trent (Andrew Rannells), a Julliard trained bartender.
To improve their image and raise their profiles, they decide to take on a literal cause célèbre. They quickly decide solving world hunger is too much work, then hit up social media and spot the story of Emma, an out lesbian in small town Indiana who wants to take her girlfriend to prom.
The ensuing musical numbers solidify celebrity self-importance and highlight the two Americas. The pampered celebs don’t understand why they can’t have a suite (there are none at the hotel, which got three stars on Orbitz), or the concept of Applebee’s as fine dining. Their insular selfishness well established, it’s time to save the rural unwashed masses.
High School Crushed
But the stars, or at least the PTA and student body, are aligned against them. The powers that be conspire to change the location of the prom, leaving Emma alone in a gym with her publicity seeking pals.
And here is where the movie begins to excel. The heart of this story is relationships, and how we communicate those relationships differently with different people.
Dee Dee and Barry deepen their relationship by helping the other confront their past. Emma has unique interactions with Dee Dee (keep her at arms length), Barry (help him heal his own prom wounds), and Angie (a shoulder to cry on). It’s one wound healed with three different salves.
Dee Dee learns to let down her walls by finding love with the principal (Keegan-Michael Key) and Trent finds his future in an unlikely place.
While it does shamelessly embrace the best parts of Glee and High School Musical, this movie could have easily become a gay reboot of Footloose. Emma avoids a national TV spot or becoming the face of a cause.
But the question of if she could go to prom is never in doubt. It’s about confronting institutional and social bigotry. Fortunately, the show separates the sin from the sinner. And while Broadway nerds will revel in the music, the stars, and the sequined outfits (oh, sooo many sequins), the message is accessible to everyone. And that’s because Emma eschews being a political pawn. Her story is personal. It’s everyone else who tries to use her for their own gains. However, in true Broadway tradition, everyone on both sides eventually sees the error of their ways.
Schmaltzy? Yes. Still touching? Definitely.
This movie is one big piece of awards bait. I look for them to score major nominations and a few wins at the Golden Globes. There’s not a lot of well produced, high profile content in the comedy/musical categories this year. Ryan will likely get a director nod, and Meryl an honor as actress. She may get two Globes nominations, depending on how much the Hollywood Foreign Press Association loves her in Let Them All Talk.
The Critic’s Cocktail Recommendation
I am shaking up a Shimmering Purple Bat. Like most of the movie’s color scheme, it’s purple, glittery, and, most of all, splashy!