The Prom is a busy movie. Nary a scene goes by without either vibrant colors or an enormous amount of dancing. Gags are in your face. And the emotional moments are all big speeches and overt displays of tears. It’s a whole lot of movie, always running and running. But by the end of its 132-minute runtime, does it add up to much? In the end, not really. In translating this 2018 Broadway musical to the big screen, director Ryan Murphy is constantly exerting energy but he never goes somewhere really interesting. The story he’s telling is one that proves all too familiar, especially in terms of how often it sidelines queer perspectives in favor of wacky heterosexual characters. The more things change, the more they stay exactly like Dallas Buyers Club.
Emma (Jo Ellen Pellman) just wants to go to her High School’s prom. This Indiana High Schooler loves her girlfriend and wants to take her to prom like everyone else. But the local PTA, led by Mrs. Greene (Kerry Washington), has canceled the prom in response to Emma’s attendance. This situation catches the eye of a quartet of down-and-out Broadway performers, led by Dee Dee (Meryl Streep) and Barry (James Corden), who are looking for a charitable cause they can support to rehabilitate their image. Heading down to Indiana, Dee Dee and company are merely looking for a PR boost. What they’ll get instead is wrapped up in Emma’s crusade to just be herself.
The biggest issue with the hustling and bustling nature of The Prom is how it’s way too glossy for its own good. Worse, the glossiness proves to be one-note. Once you’ve seen one instance of The Prom being visually bombastic, you’ve seen them all. Swooping camera movements invade every scene, for example, and get real old, real quick. Murphy’s fixation with constantly moving the camera around makes one wish they could reach out and toss him a tripod he could just sit the camera down on. The inability to just let scenes breathe even intrudes on intimate emotional sequences, like a big song involving Emma explaining her story to the world. Murphy can’t let the characters drive home the poignancy, he has to hammer it home with a spinning camera.
This camerawork gets combined with frequently clumsy editing that cuts back-and-forth between shots with such a rapid yet pointless fervor. With these visual elements, The Prom is aiming to be something that constantly maintains your attention. Instead, just renders the whole exercise as weirdly insecure. It’s like Ryan Murphy is terrified that if he ever stops shoving things at the audience everyone will just get bored and switch over to The Christmas Chronicles 2. With no confidence in either the audience or the actors to handle more subtle material, The Prom is something that becomes exhausting by the halfway mark, let alone by the time its overlong runtime is finished.
And then there are the musical numbers, which are already hampered by carrying lyrics that are, by and large, pretty forgettable. Visually, every one of the big musical numbers is decked out in the same purple and blue lighting. Instead of giving each set piece its own distinct identity, The Prom opts to make them all feel derivative of one another. That’s why the best musical number in the whole movie is Love Thy Neighbor. It’s a jaunty tune in the mold of Trouble from The Music Man or My Dead Gay Son from Heathers, which already gets it off on the right foot in my book. Better yet, Love Thy Neighbor separates itself from the other musical numbers in The Prom by firmly rooting itself in reality with a mall backdrop and naturalistic lighting. Why couldn’t more of the songs in The Prom have this level of personality and zest?
The insecurity that infests the visuals are also, unfortunately, apparent in the story. Screenwriters Chad Beguelin and Bob Martin (who also wrote the original stage show) seem oddly disinterested in actually exploring the love story at the heart of The Prom. Within the film’s first 28 minutes, Emma gets one notable scene to herself while the rest of the attention is entirely devoted to Dee Dee, Barry, and the other adult characters. This problem persists throughout the rest of the movie to a disappointing degree. Emma is usually relegated to a grinning character on the margins clapping and laughing at the antics of the New Yorkers who have invaded her life. Emma’s storyline isn’t anything revolutionary, but at least it occasionally warms your heart.
Meanwhile, there’s no sense of humanity in the storylines The Prom is much more preoccupied with. No matter how hard this movie tries (and God does it try), I didn’t care about the New Yorker characters, who start as gratingly oversized comic caricatures and then are somehow supposed to be people we can emotionally invest in. Dee Dee and her inevitable redemption arc, complete with a romance with principal Hawkins (a warm and likable Keegan Michael-Key), totally tedious. Then there’s Barry, who oscilates wildly between tired gay jokes (the app Scruff gets name-dropped) and a whole melodramatic backstory that probably never would have worked, let alone for this character. Worse than either of those elements is James Corden’s performance, which is like a homophobic caricature straight out of a 1980’s comedy. How on Earth does The Prom expect audiences to take Corden’s performance as a tangible human being?
Honestly, the story of The Prom left me more tired than anything else, and not just because it’s always running and running. It’s such a miscalculated enterprise that once again believes general audiences can’t possibly like down-to-Earth LGBQIA+ characters and their stories. These individuals are only important so long as they can be filtered through redemption arcs for heterosexual characters like Dee Dee. Fans of queer storytelling deserve better. Fans of musicals do too. Come to think of it, fans of anyone in this cast deserve better (except for James Corden, he’s not capable of better than this). The Prom is proof that you can always be shuffling your feet yet still never manage to hit your mark.