PLOT Two cynical Broadway stars hope to shine by rallying around a gay teen in a small town.
THE CAST Meryl Streep, James Corden, Nicole Kidman, Jo Ellen Pellman
RATED PG-13 (some mature talk)
WHEN | WHERE Friday at select theaters and on Netflix
BOTTOM LINE A toothless satire of celebrity self-righteousness that occasionally falls into its own trap.
In Ryan Murphy’s musical "The Prom," four Broadway actors try to convince a small Indiana town to let a lesbian high schooler attend her prom. Barging in on a PTA meeting, thespian Trent Oliver grandly announces, "We’re from New York, and we’re going to save you!" The line falls flat — not just for the red staters in the movie but for us in the audience.
Why the crickets? It’s because "The Prom," a comedy about self-serving celebrities wagging their fingers at conservative Americans, often feels like the very thing it’s trying to spoof.
Based on the 2018 Broadway musical, "The Prom" certainly comes with a stellar cast. Meryl Streep is stage legend Dee Dee Allen and James Corden is Barry Glickman, whose latest production, "Eleanor! The Eleanor Roosevelt Musical," proves a flop. ("Was it the hip-hop?" wonders Barry, apparently unaware of "Hamilton.") Desperate for some good PR, the two stumble upon that gay Indiana teen, Emma (newcomer Jo Ellen Pellman). Joined by former sitcom star Trent (Andrew Rannells) and perpetual chorus girl Angie (Nicole Kidman), they hop a bus to Indiana.
What follows is a little bit of story and a lot of musical filler. Barry takes Emma shopping ("Tonight Belongs to You"), Angie teaches her how to be sexy ("Zazz"). Meanwhile, in a rare gender reversal of the May-December romance, Dee Dee warms to Principal Tom Hawkins (Keegan-Michael Key, more than 20 years Streep’s junior). Emma reveals little in the way of personality; her closeted girlfriend, Alyssa (Ariana DeBose), is only slightly more interesting.
What’s most grating about this movie is its simplistic answer to the complicated problem of bigotry. These Indianans hate Emma so much that they go to great lengths to ostracize and torment her. (The town’s discriminator-in-chief, Mrs. Greene, is played by Kerry Washington.) Yet all it takes to sway the local teens toward tolerance is Trent’s song "Love Thy Neighbor," in which he mockingly points out contradictions in the Bible. Gee, nobody ever tried that? The song feels like a naive fantasy as well as a missed opportunity to dig a little deeper into the roots of homophobia.
Director Murphy comes at this movie with the best of intentions. Like Emma, he grew up gay in Indiana and says he was barred from bringing a high school boyfriend to his prom. Clearly, stories of acceptance still need to be told. But for a movie about freedom and celebration, "The Prom" sure feels like a chore.