There haven’t been many reasons to smile this year — and I’m just referring to the alarming dearth of delightful movie comedies. (Sorry, the re-release of Hocus Pocus doesn’t count.) Everything changes right now thanks to The Prom, a wondrously entertaining and big-hearted musical comedy guaranteed to crowd-please. That is, if crowds were still a thing.
You want marquee stars? How about Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman, Kerry Washington and James Corden on your screen within the first seven minutes. How about catchy songs? Director Ryan Murphy delivers nearly 20 totally toe-tapping numbers in just over two hours, nearly all of which were adapted from the acclaimed Broadway show. Perhaps best of all — and surely the one that will please Corden — nobody embarrasses themselves by performing with CGI’ed Cats fur and whiskers.
Instead, we receive a generous helping of celebrity cattiness. Dee Dee Allen (Streep) and Barry Glickman (Corden, doing a decent American accent) are veteran Broadway stage stars dealing with a stage-five crisis: Their big-budget new Broadway show, a musical about former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, is a major flop and doomed to close. With their careers are on sudden life support, they wallow at the closest bar. And because misery loves company, they’re soon joined by another pair of cynical actors. Meet Trent (Andrew Rannells), a failed Juilliard-trained actor turned bartender, and Angie (Kidman), who’s been stuck in the chorus of Chicago for 20 years. They all need a good PR to boost their careers, but what to do? Taking on a cause seems ideal, but solving world hunger seems too broad. Suggests faded diva Dee Dee, “We need some little injustice we can drive to.”
A quick Twitter search yields the answer. In a conservative small-town in Indiana, the head of a high-school PTA (Washington) has denied bright-eyed 17-year-old student Emma (newcomer Jo Ellen Pellman) the opportunity to take her girlfriend, Alyssa (Ariana DeBose), to the prom. The predicament seems a little bit like a Very Special Episode of Glee but whatever. The narcissistic gang — proudly self-described as “liberals from Broadway” — decide to hit the road and rally the school for Emma’s cause. In trying to save the day, they save their souls. Expect roughly a dozen jabs here at the Midwest, most of the stereotypical variety. (Corden is aghast to learn that Emma shops at Kmart instead of Saks.) Still, I’m a proud native Midwesterner, and I laughed at most of them.
If you cringe at just the thought of talented actors spontaneously breaking into song with accompanying jazz hands, I realize that I probably lost you with “20 totally toe-tapping numbers” three paragraphs ago. You probably won’t be enthralled with Streep, wearing a wig and heavy eyeliner, kicking up her heels to belt out lyrics like “Her range needs expanding/her edges need sanding!” But Murphy, the mastermind behind The Politician, Pose and Glee and never one to ooze subtlety, wears the genre proudly. The characters move furniture to sing and dance; the bright numbers tend to spill from room to room, inside to outside. (If anything, he could have chopped a few in the more sluggish second half.) There’s so much razzle dazzle, in fact, that Kidman’s stand-out number — and a personal favorite — is titled “Zazz.”
Old-fashioned musicality aside, The Prom still carries a very 2020 message of promoting tolerance over bigotry. In a mall, Rannells lectures a group of close-minded students about acceptance, imploring them that “loving thy neighbor trumps them all.” Corden, playing a proudly actor who’s “gay as a bucket of wigs,” shares a painful memory about coming out to his mother at 16. And Pellman, a star in the making, radiates kindness and warmth. Her worries are your worries. Though The Prom may be called out for its campiness, there’s no way her authentic performance can be dismissed as a joke.
In the end, how amazing that a movie so lively and jubilant and LOL-funny as The Prom can land with such emotional impact. When the entire ensemble — all clad in sparkling tuxes and dresses, of course — gathers in the gym for the grand finale number, “It’s Time to Dance,” it’s almost impossible to both not be moved and want to move right along with them. Now that’s a crowning achievement.