TV Saturday: Netflix ‘The Prom,’ a giddy Broadway overdose

Can one movie make up for a year without musical theater, without jazz hands? Ryan Murphy’s “The Prom” tries its damnedest to, but despite a promising opening and a spiritedness that makes “Glee” look downright downtrodden by comparison, it’s not quite the showstopper we’ve been pining for.

With neon lights, sparkling suits and an all-star cast — Meryl! Nicole! Corden! — “The Prom” certainly tries valiantly to take the glittering, giddy thrill of live musicals and stuff it into one steroidal overdose. That may be just what some are craving; too much Broadway razzle-dazzle isn’t exactly a problem right now, with theaters closed until at least summer. “The Prom” begins streaming Friday on Netflix.

The stage show of “The Prom” — with a book by Bob Martin and Chad Beguelin, who also wrote the songs with Matthew Sklar, the stage show of “The Prom” was a fairly ingenious combination of earnest musical comedy and self-parody. Murphy, working from a script by Martin and Beguilin, has energetically carried over that tone, sending up Broadway just as its celebrating it.

The opening is a barnburner. Dee Dee Allen (Streep) and Barry Clickman (Corden) are celebrating after the opening of their big new Broadway show, “Eleanor!,” a misguided Eleanor Roosevelt musical, when the reviews start rolling in. The party turns immediately to a wake, and Dee Dee and Barry begin drowning their sorrows with a pair of performers also on the outs (Nicole Kidman, Andrew Rannells). Fearing their careers slipping away, they resolve to turn things around with a PR-friendly cause to rally around. “A little injustice we can drive to,” Dee Dee says, slurring over a martini.

It’s lines like that that make “The Prom,” for a time, a delight. It works best when its skewering the Broadway bubble but on less certain footing once it leaves the Great White Way behind. The foursome finds their cause celebre trending on Twitter: A gay teenager named Emma (Jo Ellen Pellman, a highlight and possibly the movie’s only convincing person) has been barred from bringing her girlfriend, Alyssa (Ariana DeBose), to her prom in Edgewater, Indiana. To the heartland they go, with intentions both altruistic and hollow, and Drama Desk statuettes packed in their designer luggage.

In Indiana, “The Prom” begins to more sincerely reckon with inclusion and LGBTQ rights, and occasional song-and-dance routines to go with it. The film admirably gives each main character some attention, including scenes with the school’s principal (Keegan-Michael Key, charming, mainly paired with Dee Dee) and Alyssa’s conservative mother (Kerry Washington), the vocal leader of the ban. But that also comes at the expense of the movie’s initial headlong momentum and its running time, stretching out what might have been a more continuously funny movie until it starts to sag from the kind of self-congratulatory displays it initially satirizes.

None of this is so bad; the film exudes the warm spirit of acceptance, and cinematographer Matthew Libatique (“A Star Is Born,” “Requiem for a Dream”) begins to bathe the film in a softer glow. But it’s also a delicate juggling act of comic caricature and sincere sentiment, and Murphy can’t quite pull it off. Some have made strong cases that the performance by Corden as a gay stereotype, in particular, is off-key. Others are more successful. Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but Meryl Streep is terrific. More than anyone, she seems to relish parading through the gulf between Broadway and Middle America, proudly introducing herself as a “gay-positive icon” and trying to land a non-existent hotel suite by presenting her awards at the front desk.

“The Prom” works hard to be a good time, and I hope it is for many who could use one. As an encore, I can only suggest another inclusive, liberal-minded party movie from this year that more directly captured the joy of being in a theater: “David Byrne’s American Utopia.”

“The Prom,” a Netflix release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for thematic elements, some suggestive/sexual references and language. Running time: 131 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.


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