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Prom, The
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by Peter Sobczynski

"The Pig In "Carrie" Had It Better"
1 stars

Even in these crazy-go-nuts times, it is still way too soon—and there is an excellent chance that such a time may never occur in our lifetimes—for anyone to even dare suggest a reappraisal of last year’s deeply misbegotten adaptation of the hit stage musical “Cats,” I suppose that enough time has passed to consider the fact that there was probably no way that anyone could have possibly come up with a coherent and watchable screen translation of that particular gumdrop and that the resulting movie may actually deserve a point or two for embracing that attitude and going along its deeply peculiar way. It was a terrible movie, for sure, but a.) it was always going to be a terrible movie and b.) at least it had the courtesy to be memorably terrible, or is it terribly memorable? At the very least, I think I might actually prefer it to this season’s musical dud, “The Prom,” a film which is just as gaudy and overblown as “Cats” but is all the more infuriating because, unlike “Cats,” it actually could have been good—and it does contain a couple of lovely things—but the stuff that does work is consistently being drowned out by the stuff that doesn’t. To make matters worse, the stuff that doesn’t work so obviously doesn’t work that all you can do is sit there in befuddlement and try to figure out why no one at any point in its procession from the stage to the screen seems to have recognized its glaring faults at any point in the process.

There are two different storylines battling for supremacy at the heart of “The Prom”—one quite good and one quite dreadful. In the good one, Emma Nolan (newcomer Jo Ellen Pellman) is a teenaged girl in a small Indiana town who, like so many others, is eagerly looking forward to going to prom. The trouble is that she wants to take her clandestine girlfriend Alyssa (Ariana DeBose), one of the most popular girls in school, as her date. This is fine with the surprisingly supportive principal, Mr. Hawkins (Keegan-Michael Key) but when the head of the local chapter of the PTA, Mrs. Greene (Kerry Washington) gets wind that Emma wants to bring a girl as her date, she decides to avoid legal hassles and simply cancel the prom altogether, making Emma an instant target among her classmates. To make things even more complicated, Alyssa is Mrs. Greene’s daughter and she has not as yet gotten around to coming out to her.

As premises for contemporary musicals go, this is actually a pretty good one. Clearly inspired by any number of real-life cases, it has a narrative that could easily be made to work within a conventional musical framework, especially in the number of ways in which the expansive emotions of its teen protagonists could be translated into soaring musical terms. In this case, the material would have gotten an additional boost from the key performance from newcomer Jo Ellen Pellman as Emma, who is simply spectacular throughout, hitting both the musical and dramatic moments in such a direct manner that if “The Prom” had turned out to be a good movie, it would have easily launched her into stardom.

Unfortunately, that brings us to the second of the two stories and that is where the whole thing goes to an especially glitzy and gaudy Hell. Back on Broadway, legendary stage diva Dee Dee Allen (Meryl Streep) and fellow star Barry Glickman (James Corden) have just opened and closed on the same night with a musical based on the life of Eleanor Roosevelt that inspires a slew of scathing reviews damning them for their conceit and solipsism. While drowning their sorrows along with Angie Dickinson (Nicole Kidman), an aging chorus girl who has just left the chorus of “Chicago” after 20 years after once again being passed over for the role of Roxie Hart, and Trent Oliver (Andrew Runnels), a one-time TV and stage actor who now spends most of his time tending bar and reminding people that he went to Julliard, Dee Dee and Barry hit upon a genius idea to help revitalize their flagging careers—they will latch on to some kind of cause and use the attention it inspires to help boost their profiles and convince people of their selflessness. Upon hearing about Emma’s plight, the four band together, along with a touring production of “Godspell,” to head to Indiana in order to fight for justice for Emma and, more importantly, restore their public credibility in the process.

Simply put, the story involving Emma and Alyssa is so much more interesting and topical than the stuff involving the big city sophisticates turning up to turn the hicks around and learning something about themselves in the bargain that every time the teens have to cede the stage, everything pretty much grinds to a halt. Sadly, there is a lot of grinding to be had—especially in the increasingly excruciating second half—so much so, in fact, that the girls at times feel like afterthoughts in what should be their story. I suppose one could argue that part of the point of the show is how these celebrities turn up and run roughshod over everything until the finally learn that It Isn’t Always About Them but the film does not illustrate this problem so much as it succumbs to it. Maybe this stuff played better on the stage with a better balance between the two stories but outside of the occasional inspired one-liner, the material involving the stars is deadly and man, there is a lot of it.

Adding to the imbalance is director Ryan Murphy’s decision to cast the roles of the interlopers with big-name stars who seem more interested in amusing themselves than in creating characters that anyone could possibly care about, especially when their narcissism is put up against the more direct and relatable problems of Emma and Alyssa. As Dee Dee, Streep—in a character clearly inspired by Broadway diva Patti LuPone—delivers one of those broadly comedic turns that we are supposed to be instantly delighted with just because it is the normally serious-minded Streep doing it, even though she has done any number of such turns over the years. She is mildly amusing at times—though viewers with longer memories will realize that she is just doing a less interesting variation of the hilariously vain actress she played in “Death Becomes Her”—but not even she can make much of the film’s most cringeworthy moments, where she learns at last to be a more giving person after the formerly awestruck principal shames her for being self-centered.

As the over-the-hill hoofer, Nicole Kidman fares somewhat better—she tends to come alive when she gets a chance to do comedy—but her big scene, a song-and-dance number designed as an homage to the work of Bob Fosse, comes up short thanks to the quick edits and swirling camera moves that Murphy distractingly employs to in an attempt to cover the fact that she, for all her skills, does not quite have the moves required to pull it off on her own. Andrew Rannells plays the most negligible member of the quartet but at least he gets to do the one show-stopping tune in the otherwise undistinguished score—the bitingly hilarious “Love Thy Neighbor” in which he castigates Emma’s classmates for their treatment of her while pointing out the myriad ways in which these God-fearing twerps have gone against the Bible themselves. The worst of the lot, by far, is Corden, whose name on the poster for a new movie musical, following his appearances in “Into the Woods,” “Cats” and now this, should be seen as roughly the equivalent of a skull and crossbones on a bottle of poison, though the poison would probably be easier to swallow. Whether going for broad comedy or broader pathos, he always comes across as both too much and never enough to the point where you want to beg him to dial it down several notches. To make matters worse, the character of Jimmy is a gay man who can relate to Emma’s problem because he too once suffered from a prom-related humiliation and the straight Corden brings him to life by making him into a walking compilation of outdated cliche stereotypes and behaviors.

Hey, I would love to see a comedic story about egotistical actors who inadvertently learn to be better people almost by accident. I just don’t think that sticking it in the middle of a different and far more interesting story is such a smoking hot idea and to then further weigh things down with leaden star turns, forgettable songs and glitzy but ultimately shrug-worthy choreography does not exactly help matters much. You know how some people will go online and do unofficial fan edits of films to make them the way that they want to see them, doing everything from removing Jar-Jar Binks from “The Phantom Menace” to reassembling Brian De Palma’s “Raising Cain” to its originally intended structure? I can’t help but think that if someone did that to “The Prom”—keeping the stuff involving the girls and sending the rest to the scrap heap—it would result in a stronger, wiser and more touching work than what we have here.

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originally posted: 12/10/20 11:44:04
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  11-Dec-2020 (PG-13)



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