Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
Rated PG-13, 130 minutes
Directed by: Ryan Murphy
Musicals can send spirits soaring and soothe the pain in troubled times. They provide stirring sensations of joy and euphoria with their radiant glow and glamorous glitz. Director Ryan Murphy has transformed the singular spontaneity of THE PROM’s live show (created by Jack Viertel, with book by Chad Beguelin and Bob Martin), turning its razzle dazzle into a cinematic spectacular. Delivering an unbeatable high, its meaningful sentiments and memorable songs combine to form an extravaganza that sings as it tugs on the heartstrings.
High schooler Emma (Jo Ellen Pellman) wants to take her closeted girlfriend Alyssa (Ariana DeBose) to the senior prom. But because of their small town’s conservative views, the head of the PTA, Mrs. Greene (Kerry Washington), has not only banned the young lesbian couple from attending, but cancelled the festivities altogether. With almost the entire school pissed at her, Emma is in desperate need of help. Enter four cynical, middling, narcissistic actors on a selfish mission to revive their flailing careers!
Dee Dee (Meryl Streep) and her fellow co-star Barry (James Corden) have just seen the lights dim on their Broadway show when they come up with the idea to get a cause célèbre and ride a wave of positive publicity to fame and fortune. Their pal, struggling chorus girl Angie (Nicole Kidman), comes across Emma’s problem on Twitter (a subtle, satirical dagger thrown at that platform’s version of activism perhaps) and suggests they, as well as Juilliard-trained-actor/bartender Troy (Andrew Rannells), travel to Indiana to make Emma their project. They show up unannounced, throwing everyone, including principal Hawkins (Keegan-Michael Key), for a loop. Hijinks and hilarity ensue.
Murphy’s saturated jewel-toned signature is scribbled all over the picture. He captures each musical sequence with its own distinct personality. Not only do these big, fantastical numbers deepen the character development in entertaining, engaging ways with their catchy melodies and comedic lyrics, the aesthetics and technical aspects also feel cinematically show-stopping and immersive. Matthew Libatique’s cinematography, Jamie Walker McCall’s production design, Lou Eyrich’s costume design and Peggy Tachdjian and Danielle Wang’s edits work in concert to bring these moments to life. These scenes add glitz and gravitas, whether it be Streep’s flamenco-influenced “It’s Not About Me,” Rannell’s Lee Greenwood-esque “The Acceptance Song,” or Kidman’s Fosse-adjacent “Zazz.” Yet the stand-out is Rannell’s “Love Thy Neighbor,” which is set to a rousing gospel tune and exposes the small town’s hypocritical beliefs to the students.
The heartrending songs Pellman and DeBose deliver are sweet and, more importantly, powerfully poignant. Pellman’s “I want” song, “Dance With You,” is a romantic, pink flowery delight where the pair longingly waft around the school grounds together. DeBose’s heartsong, “Alyssa Greene,” beautifully condenses the push-pull struggles of living two lives – a tug-of-war between her private and public personas. And Pellman’s plea for acceptance, “Unruly Heart” is moving. Key’s solo, “We Look To You,” feels particularly prescient in these Broadway-less times, as we also miss the performers who hold us in their magical spell on the Great White Way.
Streep is transcendent as a self-centered diva gradually learning to be selfless. She’s a genuine campy hoot in spots (like when she reacts angrily after her last remaining resources have been tapped), but it’s her emotive, grounded moments that sparkle. Kidman is luminous, divinely delighting in the material, having fun, but also finding the heart in it quickly. She naturally slips into a surrogate caregiver role with the greatest of ease and empathy. Rannells handles his character’s humor and heart with confident, compelling aplomb. Troy’s trip down the stairs is indelible in the kooky opening for the fake sitcom that provides this film’s long-running joke. Corden does an adequate job in his role, searching for redemption, acting as Emma’s sage advisor through her tough time. Pellman makes an assured debut. Yet it’s DeBose who turns in a star-making performance.
There are a few errant spots where sequins have popped off the film’s fabric. Though every minute – even the excessive ones – plays like a glorious, glittery escape, a tighter cut on the motel scene between Barry and Dee Dee could’ve benefitted the weighty run time. It’s also unclear if the reveal of Alyssa’s mother is actually supposed to be a true, twisty reveal. As it plays, it’s handled as if it’s a fact we already knew.
THE PROM demonstrates that Murphy has matured as a filmmaker since his GLEE days, which, while undoubtedly bubbly and fun, contained a darker underbelly that was never addressed. Years and many other massive production launches later, that unwanted intangible flaw has disappeared for good. And what remains shines as bright as a precious gem.
Grade: 4 out 5
THE PROM releases on Netflix starting on December 11.