The Prom: just because you can, doesn’t mean you should

In the past few years, we’ve made some big steps in terms of queer representation on screen. It has come to the point where, just because you can make a movie musical about a lesbian going to prom starring Nicole Kidman and Meryl Streep, doesn’t mean that you should. When I first heard about the movie, I knew it would be directed by Ryan Murphy before I even finished reading the blurb. When I heard it was also starring James Corden ー in gayface no less ー I had a feeling this wouldn’t be the only questionable choice.

The Prom (2020, Ryan Murphy) is your typical American, big city, colourful, modern movie musical ー think La La Land (2016), or A Star Is Born (2018). It tells the story of how the lives of four aging Broadway stars intersect with a lesbian highschooler hundreds of miles away. When the aging stars, led by Dee Dee (Meryl Streep) and Barry (James Corden), realise that their stardom is fading, they turn to celebrity activism as a last-ditch attempt at fame and look for a cause to get behind.

They find Emma’s story trending on Twitter: her school’s PTA cancelled their prom for the entire student body, just to stop Emma from going and bringing another girl as a date. The group decides this is a case they can get behind, and they make their way to the heart of Indiana to interrupt a PTA meeting, cause a frenzy, and get Emma her prom back. And it all goes exactly to plan!

(I’m just kidding; of course it doesn’t.)

Music and Styling

My first problem with The Prom is with the music: a few days after having watched it, I couldn’t sing any of the songs back to you. Most of the songs aren’t jarring ー almost worse is that they are generic and blend into one another; they are indistinguishable from one another and from other modern musicals; inoffensive, but ultimately forgettable.

Considering that this film is marketed to a queer audience (I’m sure not exclusively, but the Netflix banner really wanted me to watch it), some of the songs are aggressively heterosexual: one sequence shows a series of high school prom-posals. I can (fairly safely) hope that this one is meant to be taken as a mocking parody. However, another song entitled “Love Thy Neighbour” sung by Andrew Rannells comes off as equally cringey but more ambiguous. Straight men in suits swing dancing in a mall and singing about the bible unironically? Thanks, I hate it. Ultimately, If you’re going to try and end homophobia with one song then it needs to be a better song than that. 

I can begrudgingly admit that there were some moments of clever wordplay: Nicole Kidman’s character Angie mentions “a step ball change of heart” in a Fosse-inspired duet with Emma. And when Streep, Kidman, Rannells and Corden harmonise on the word lesbian, I couldn’t help but laugh.

Soundtrack Stand Out: Unruly Heart, Jo Ellen Pellman

Stylistically, the film isn’t exactly innovative, but it is warmly colourful, which helps keep the screen visually interesting. A dichromatic lighting scheme of hot pink magenta and turquoise cyan appear throughout different settings, giving scenes a sense of continuity: lights appear everywhere, as if the real world is a musical. There is also probably something to be said about the use of pink and blue in a film which aims to address discrimination around gender and sexuality.

Nicole Kidman looks good in this lighting

Acting and Characterisation

Spending so much time on musical numbers ー a lot of which repeatedly serve the same purpose and don’t add to the plot ー means that less time is left for character development. Emma’s love interest, the PTA president’s daughter Alyssa Green, is perhaps the most obvious example. Even her name is coincidental, nondescript: both her fore- and surnames seem to have been chosen just so they can rhyme with a song lyric.

During the credit sequence, each character poses for prom-style photos holding up a yearbook sign: “most popular”, “most likely to be…” “best dressed” etc. Though a cute idea on paper, it soon reveals a fatal flaw: few of the characters are developed enough to have recognisable traits that you can put on a placard. Alyssa, for example, gets “most artistic”. When did we see her being artistic?

This is when I realised that her only character trait is ‘lesbian with a homophobic mother’ (Kerry Washington, who we’ll get to soon). Since she’s playing across the main romantic lead, you would think that two hours and twelve minutes is enough time to give her something else. Hell, a few camera shots with her posed next to an easel would have done it.

Biggest Gay Mood: being excluded by your entire school and finding comfort with middle-aged actresses

In a similar vein, Nicole Kidman and Andrew Rannells are barely noticeable in The Prom ー which is in itself noteworthy. Ironically, Kidman plays a chorus girl who emerges out of the shadows halfway through the film, complaining to Emma that “no one sees her”. Girl, we don’t either.

If you need some exceptional acting work to cleanse your Nicole Kidman palette, I would recommend Boy Erased (2018, Joel Edgerton), in which she plays the mother to a gay teenager coerced into conversion therapy by his pastor father.

Unfortunately, the time has come to address James Corden. Least offensive is the American accent, which, while regionally nondescript (and he loses it when he cries), is at least recognisable as an American accent. Most offensive is everything else.

Corden seems to think that playing a gay character means playing a parody of Christopher Biggins. And hey, don’t get me wrong, we love Christopher Biggins, but when such an obviously affected campery comes from gay Twitter’s least favourite straight man, it’s going to come across as less authentic ー and ultimately just much less entertaining. Though the jarring characterisation does mellow after the initial shock, it’s never exactly pleasant.

Let’s take the limp wrist as one stereotyped mannerism to investigate. With Corden, the hand does not move freely as it does in the more experienced mincers; rather than relaxing the wrist and letting the hand flop freely about with every gesture, he holds it stiff in an angled position. This is a small distinction, but nonetheless an important one. The limp wrist is an expression of freedom from society’s (gendered) norms: by refusing to hold a strong, mascline position, you’re saying “I don’t care about all of this; it is unimportant to me.” Conversely, Corden cares too much about getting it right, and ends up getting it so very wrong.

If anyone could save this film, it’s Meryl Streep. She’s exquisite in any role, and this is no exception. As Dee Dee, she plays her emotions, and crucially the withholding of her emotions, convincingly: she recites a heartbreaking monologue about her recent divorce from the man who broke her “delicate blueberry heart”; she sings her fucking heart out in a red wig. Even through her violently predictable romantic subplot, she remains captivating. I’m not sure this review will convince you to watch The Prom, but if you do, do it for Meryl.

Top Tip: If you want to see Meryl Streep sing and dance in a sequined jumpsuit you can just watch Mamma Mia

Though she has a comparatively smaller part, Kerry Washington as ‘homophobic mother to closeted lesbian’ and head of the PTA is pretty damn hot too. Her interactions with her daughter gave most of the few moments of emotional tension in The Prom, and her character had a real arc.

Overall, the film did follow modern musical narrative tropes to a satisfying conclusion. However, more often than not, lack of character development left any plot movement feeling forced, unearned. Without well-developed characters to get behind, the overqualified cast (bar you-know-who) failed to impress beyond their innate charm as individuals. It breaks my heart to say this, but no, it turns out you can’t just cast Meryl in sequins and hope that will make a good film. It took Ryan Murphy to show us that it doesn’t work like that anymore. How’s that for a predictable plot line?

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