Saturday, December 12, 2020

Film review: "The Prom" (2020)

Two lead Meryl roles in two days! After yet another long day of work behind a mask and face shield, I was able to plop in front of the tube with my husband and a glass of wine to enjoy the fun of The Prom. 

Director Ryan Murphy's Netflix adaptation of the Broadway musical stayed very true to its theater roots. There was a song about every two minutes. Not that I necessarily mind--musicals are one of my favorite genres. I was a little worried I would think it was too cheesy and exceedingly low brow. Turns out it was cheesy and low brow. But I had no need to worry, as I really enjoyed it nonetheless. 

The film starts off with Indiana teenager, Emma (Jo Ellen Pellman in her film debut), faced with being unable to bring her girlfriend to her high school prom. Enter fading Broadway stars Dee Dee Allen (Streep) and Barry Glickman (James Corden), who bemoan the awful reviews of their new musical, "Eleanor." It was already here where I felt the story jumped ahead faster than I would expect, with Dee Dee and Barry teaming up with fellow actors Tom and Angie (Andrew Rannells and Nicole Kidman, respectively) to find a cause célèbre to bring publicity to their careers. They of course choose Emma and her Twitter-trending plight of homophobia. 

The New Yorkers who descend on Indiana to "help" Emma, are met with some hostility from the PTA, as well as from students who are pissed their prom has to be cancelled because of her. Keegan-Michael Key does a really nice job as the school's principle. He just happens to be a big fan of Dee Dee Allen as well, and the two spark a tentative romance. Meryl's scenes with Key are some of may favorite. They had really sweet chemistry and Meryl's "The Lady's Improving" number is one of the highlights for me. But the real showstopper is without a doubt "It's Not About Me," performed fairly early in the film, where Meryl belts out a hilarious, if insincere, tango-like call to action on Emma's behalf. 

I have to admit I laughed out loud when she calls the townspeople "bigoted monsters."  I don't think Meryl has ever sounded better, and she looks beautiful and like she having a blast. 

The film did feel like it dragged a bit at times. And with all the musical numbers and focus on the Broadway characters, both Joe and I agreed that we tended to forget a bit about Emma. She's really supposed to be the main event here, but she's so easily overshadowed by the larger-than-life older characters. Not that I minded. I honestly found Jo Ellen Pellman uncompelling in the role. I was far more interested when Ariana DeBose, her onscreen girlfriend, was in scenes with her. 

There's been a lot of chatter in the Twitterverse about James Corden and what some are calling a bad example of "gay face." While I'm not an advocate of perpetuating stereotypes, I was not bothered at all by his characterization. His performance is nothing particularly special, but I think the outrage over his casting is hyperbolic, and frankly smacks a bit of gay self-loathing and anti-effeminacy. 

I hope I'm not rambling too much in this post. Writing a film review is probably my least favorite thing to do on this blog. I feel like I just end up writing a brief synopsis followed by more of a reaction without really reviewing the film for what it is as complete work. I'm so bad at that. I'm not good at being objective about filmmaking when I'm so interested in the characters and how I generally feel when I'm watching it. Maybe I should wait to write reviews after I can watch the film a few times or after several weeks have passed. 

What I can say is that I had a good time watching this movie. Joe and I were humming and singing the tunes before it even ended, and have watched clips and played songs from the soundtrack already today. The cinematography is gorgeous and, as is Ryan Murphy's wont, extremely colorful. How are my eyes not sick of pink and purple by this point?

Is the film a masterpiece? Far from it. It's not a brainy musical like something you'd get from Sondheim. It's not as bad as the worst of Glee (a show I've seen every episode of btw), but it definitely had that EVERYBODY IS REPRESENTED VERY ON PURPOSE kind of feel. That's a good thing, I suppose, even if it's a bit heavy handed. 

Meryl's a shoe-in for a Golden Globe nod for Musical or Comedy. It seems a role tailor-made for a win, but I truly truly believe that awards bodies are very averse to giving her the top prize these days. It's too eyebrow-raising to snub her for something like this, but I'm more expecting Carey Mulligan in Promising Young Woman or Michelle Pfeiffer in French Exit. If Meryl happens to win the Globe or snag a SAG nom, there's a small window for an Oscar nomination. I never would've guessed a few months ago. I assumed and continue to assume it won't go much beyond the Globes, but it'll be a fun awards season regardless, as we watch and wait to see what happens with both this movie, and Let Them All Talk.  


  1. Promising Young woman is a comedy?

  2. Thanks Jeff, I haven't had a chance to see it yet. What do you think could have been done to improve it?

    1. I think the runtime could've been tightened up a bit. There's a musical number at a monster truck rally that seems superfluous. Like I mentioned, I wasn't particulary impressed with Pellman, but it's probably just personal preference. The relationship between Emma and Barry seems forced? And I don't get why Emma doesn't have friends?

  3. Do you think the anger would be the same level if Ryan Murphy cast Jake Gyllenhaal or Darren Criss to play Barry?

    1. Absolutely not. The anger is particularly sparked by certain people's distaste for Corden in general.

    2. Although I'd say either of those two would be miscast as far too young. Even Corden is too young likely.

    3. Any chance of a Grammy nod next year?

    4. Oh man, I don't really don't know how to predict that. I don't follow the field for movie soundtracks. I figure she has as good a shot as ever before. She's gotta get one one of these times, right?! And if she got it for actually singing?

  4. I loved this movie, though it is catnip for me. I concur with your anti-effeminacy reading of Corden's performance, which i thought was quite effective and as a gay, overweight and yes, effeminate, man felt representative which is nice. This is probably my fave FILM performance since The Post (BLL is a league of its own) and fave comedic turn since Julie & Julia. I can see her sneaking in at the Oscars IF she wins the Globe, but only then. I bet she'll work with Ryan Murphy again. Ideally, in a limited series where she can dig deep, like an American Crime Story.

    1. I should clarify, your anti-effeminacy reading of *criticism of* Corden's performance...

    2. Yeah, I'll really to be interested to see. The Oscars are over four months away still! That's so weird this year. I won't be completely shocked if she sneaks in, and if anyone can do it, it's her. But I'm expecting Globes tops.

  5. Hi, Jeff —

    Thank you for yet another thoughtful piece on Meryl and her work. I have been quiet for a few years, but I remain a big fan of her and of YOU and your blog.

    No, you are not “rambling too much in this post”—or in anywhere else. Your take on “The Prom” is balanced, candid, and as comprehensive as any writer with limited space can do.

    Yeah, sure, “The Prom” is cheesy and lowbrow. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be smartly fun, quietly moving, and sadly necessary. After all, this is a world where (as a June 2020 article in The Guardian on the documentary “Welcome to Chechnya” states) it’s “still illegal to be gay in 70 countries. And in eight or more, it’s punishable by death.” Now maybe Ryan Murphy can do a musical on THAT and let’s see what all these critics will say, especially those dismissing “The Prom” as nothing but celebrity-stacked cynicism and frothy fairy tale.

    Like you, I did find it dragging at times. Also, during the big musical numbers, I wished that the camerawork had been less swirly, the editing less jumpy. And like you, I don’t understand all the hating going on against James Corden.

    As a gay man myself, I’m all for representation and diversity. There ought to be more opportunities for LGBTQ actors to play LGBTQ and straight characters. But (based on the YouTube videos of the original actor who played the role in Broadway, the great Brooks Ashmanskas), that role was meant to be played in an overtly effeminate way. I found that James Corden was noticeably, annoyingly swishy in moments that called for that, but he was also restrained and sympathetic in other pivotal moments.

    Of course, any critic or moviegoer has the right to quibble over any performance, plotline, or technical point. But for every detractor who wrote that the musical numbers are “overblown” or “overproduced,” or that Meryl is once gain “overacting” or “oversinging,” maybe there’s also room for everyone else to be more mindful of whether we ourselves are overreacting, overhating, and overexposing our own blind sides and biases.

    Oops, sorry, Jeff, if I’m the one who’s now rambling too much. There’s still so much good stuff to enjoy and to ponder in “flawed” films like this, so what’s the point of hating everything away just because one actor was “flamboyant.” Or maybe the message of acceptance and reconciliation at the film’s end is too sentimental and unreal (unachievable?) for some. So who’s now reeking of cynicism here?

    Or maybe some people just don’t like Meryl Streep. Well, I get that, too. Maybe you’ve read this recent piece in The Independent: “Meryl Streep is the most underrated actor in Hollywood—seriously.”

    As the author puts it, “Streep’s apparent greatness is now treated as so inevitable, so unremarkable, so boring, that it has taken her full circle: she’s now underrated. Seriously. In truth, her acting only tends to get spoken about today when someone is expressing cynicism about it.”

    Okay, maybe she is not the most underrated actor in Hollywood. But she is definitely underappreciated and overhated by many. Maybe people forget that she is now 71, that she has given us “Sophie’s Choice” and “Kramer vs. Kramer” and so much more, and she continues to give what she enjoys giving in films and on TV. And she continues to fight (and delight) for her many (political, social, environmental, literary, press freedom, women’s rights, children’s rights) advocacies.

    In other words, she doesn’t have to prove anything anymore. She doesn’t have to work anymore. She doesn’t have to keep “trying hard” to impress or “bore” us anymore. But she still keeps on giving anyway. Maybe when she’s gone, just one more legend immortalized in some fawning obituary, then we all can stop being cynical or blasé about her and her gifts.

    Thank you, Jeff, for the gift of this blog, your insights, your imagination. Thank you, Meryl and “The Prom,” for your flawed but fabulous gifts.

    — Danny

    1. Thanks so much for reading and for the very thoughtful comments here. I saw the piece in the Independent as well, and while I don't think Meryl is underrated, there's some truth to the concept.

      Meryl has said before that she expects people may be tired of her. Imagine how challenging it would have to be to somehow come across as fresh and interesting when you've been around as long as she has and done so much with so much attention. To be able to give a performance that doesn't come across as "been there, seen that" is a feat she tackles every time she takes on a new role. And she continues to succeed.

      My biggest awareness of some sense of "underratedness" is in how I mentioned that it's hard for her to actually WIN awards these days. If she hadn't had the legacy she did and she pulled off Doubt or Julie & Julia, August: Osage County, Florence. I just feel she would've won a couple of those.

      But I'm not complaining. It's fun to speculate regardless. In the meantime, I'm appreciative that we get to continue to see Meryl is new wonderful roles.

      Thanks again for the comment, Danny.

      Stay safe.