Entering The Prom – or rather, entering the living room where this Broadway adaptation would be streaming on Netflix – I was hoping for trashy fun. Scratch that: I was hoping for trashy fun at best. Based on its trailers, everything about this gaudy-looking musical comedy by director Ryan Murphy screamed misappropriated energy and kitsch and sanctimony – everything that killed my interest in Murphy's Glee before that show was halfway through its six-season run.
I had somehow forgotten, though, that when Glee was firing on all cylinders, the series was also absolutely, infectiously exhilarating, and sometimes disarmingly moving. And so, for most of its length, is The Prom, which is like an early, super-sized Glee episode with 100 percent fewer commercial breaks and 100 percent more Meryl Streep. Because it's determinedly void of subtlety and does all the work for you, you don't really watch Murphy's movie so much as succumb to it. Yet once I accepted its over-the-top artifice, broadly designed cartoon characters, and heart-on-sleeve sentimentality, I have to admit I succumbed happily, and even gratefully. There isn't any “depth,” per se, but Murphy's joyously cornball entertainment – the first feature film he's directed, if you can believe it, since 2010's Eat Pray Love – still has energy and sincerity to spare, as well as a cast whose company you're (mostly) glad to be in. Sure, the end product could've debuted on the Disney Channel just as easily as on Netflix. Some Disney Channel movies are terrific.
During its 2018 Broadway incarnation, The Prom – music by Matthew Sklar, lyrics by Chad Beguelin, book by Beguelin and Bob Martin (the latter a co-creator of iconic hits in theatre's The Drowsy Chaperone and TV's Slings & Arrows) – received largely glowing reviews and a half-dozen Tony nods. Yet the musical ran for just under nine months, maybe because it looked too silly for audiences hungry for the more sophisticated pleasures of Beetlejuice and Frozen. It is silly – gloriously so. With its tale of Broadway divas who crash-land on an unsuspecting Indiana town in order to spread a message of tolerance and resuscitate their faltering careers (while occasionally making huge asses of themselves), it also boasts one of those comedic fish-out-of-water narratives so irresistibly juicy you can't believe no one thought of it sooner.
The divas in question are led by Dee Dee Allen (Streep) and Barry Glickman (James Corden), formerly venerated hams whose new Roosevelt musical Eleanor! has just closed, on opening night, after being savaged by the New York Times. (In a show with so many sharp in-jokes, the employment of a faux crap-theatre title with an exclamation point at the end isn't one of them; if The Prom's creators wanted to be truly subversive, they should have called it The Prom!, punctuation mark attached.) While drowning their sorrows at Sardi's, however, the duo's aging-chorine pal Angie (Nicole Kidman) alerts them to a distressing news item: The PTA of an Indiana high school is apparently fighting to cancel spring prom rather than let a lesbian teen (Jo Ellen Pellman's Emma) attend the dance with her girlfriend (Ariana DeBose's Alyssa). That's it, thinks our soused show-biz egoists: A cause! They consequently decide to bring their talents and well-meaning condescension to the Middle West and rescue both Emma's dignity and their ruined reputations – and the timing is perfect, because they can catch a bus ride to Indiana with their actor/bartender buddy Trent (Andrew Rannells) and the non-Equity touring company of Godspell. (Now that's an excellent theatre joke.)
If you've seen even one musical comedy in your life, you'll probably have little doubt as to what will happen over The Prom's next two hours, from the shell-shocked arrival of the Manhattanites (who've never even heard of Applebee's) to the climactic uplift as everybody who deserves one – and even those who don't – receive their Happily Ever Afters. But you don't watch works of this genre for their surprises, despite Beguelin's and Martin's script actually containing a few. You watch them for the unapologetically theatrical joy and sorrow and schmaltz they'll theoretically provide, as well as their hopefully delightful song-and-dance routines and show-stopper performances. And on all of these counts, Murphy's outing delivers. I could have done without the maudlin music cues underscoring every (non-sung) moment of high drama, and the gags based on actor vanity get a little tiresome. And I really wish that poor Kerry Washington, as the villainous PTA president (and Alyssa's mom), had more to play than a generic stick in the mud; she's like Hairspray's Velma Von Tussle with all the wicked sass and satire removed. This Prom, though, is still well-worth attending.
Though I've kept myself out of the loop regarding the Internet hate, I understand that Corden has been singled out for particularly aghast derision: maybe because he's a straight performer playing gay (or, in the character's words, gay as "a bucket of wigs!”); maybe because the omnipresent, incessantly cheerful talk-show host is such an easy target; maybe because Cats. But I thought he was just lovely here, crooning and hoofing with skill, amusingly fey without being a caricature, and honestly pained whenever recalling childhood humiliations; Corden certainly didn't need the sad-bastard strings accompanying Barry's misery. Rannells, who manages to score a laugh every single time Trent references his alma mater Juilliard (which he does a lot), is, as always, musical-theatre nirvana, particularly crushing it on Act II's gospel-revival toe-tapper “Love Thy Neighbor.”
Kidman really only gets one showcase: a Bob Fosse-inspired tribute to the art of “Zazz.” (In a deeply satisfying bit of set decoration, the number appears to be staged in the same living room, with the same staircase, where Ann Reinking and Erzsebet Foldi performed their brilliant “Everything Old Is New Again” duet in Fosse's All That Jazz.) As even Moulin Rouge! – with an exclamation point! – demonstrated, Kidman's singing voice is rather thin, and her choreo is merely acceptable. But also as in Moulin Rouge!, Kidman is just good enough for the good-enough performer she's playing, and her presence is electrifying; she and Pellman, who's a far more accomplished vocalist and dancer, sell the song through sheer charm and the visible suggestion that, for three minutes, they're having the times of their lives.
As for Streep, she's reliably great as Dee Dee, even though she can play Aging Broadway Narcissist in her sleep (and has been playing it at least since 1992's Death Becomes Her). Murphy, however, has an ace up his sleeve: the casting of Keegan-Michael Key as the high school's Principal Hawkins, a serious – and straight! – musical-theatre fanatic who has loved Dee Dee from afar for decades. Key portrays this incandescently sweet, earnest figure with so much genuine heart that even Streep seems to be taken aback at his sincerity, and it makes all the sense in the world when Dee Dee's big-city defenses melt away when he's around. Key brings out warm, girlish aspects to Steep's character, and her performance, that are both unexpected and richly rewarding.
For his own part, Key, whose vocals are outstanding, is granted a testament to the heart-soaring thrills of live theatre in Principal Hawkins' solo “We Look to You,” a paean that's all the more touching – heart-wrenching, really – now that we're currently living in a world with virtually no live theatre to speak of. I don't think you'll have to be an admirer of the stage to appreciate the number (though it'll help), but for all of The Prom's giddily ostentatious visuals and exuberant highs, it's the moments of subdued emotionalism, such as Key's gentle delivery of “We Look to You,” that ultimately separate Murphy's offering from its High School Musical brethren. You feel it in Pellman's radiantly expressive confusion and sadness and bliss, and in the engaging DeBose's conflicted relationship with her mom. You feel it in the beguiling naturalism of Mary Kay Place, and in Rannell's common-sense advice masquerading as wisecracks. (Informed that Emma's high school has no drama program, Trent dryly says to a bunch of mean girls and boys, “That explains your general lack of empathy.”) You feel it in Corden's interior hurt, and Kidman's optimism, and Streep's damaged regality. And you feel it when, just as they should, a pair of romantics finally get, and earn, the kiss we musical-comedy fans have been waiting two ideally paced hours for. The Prom is wonderful. I can't wait to see it on stage.
THE MIDNIGHT SKY
Another Netflix presentation, but this one enjoying a local cineplex release in advance of its December 23 streaming debut, director/star George Clooney's The Midnight Sky probably won't be anyone's idea of an appropriate movie for Christmas, even if Clooney's paunchy, white-bearded lead does resemble a depressed Santa Claus. It's hard to say, though, what the appropriate time to watch this science-fiction drama might actually be. When you're feeling hopeless about the state of the world and want to feel a little bit worse?
Based on a novel by Lily Brooks-Dalton and set in a post-apocalyptic 2049, the film finds Clooney's Arctic Circle scientist Augustine Lofthouse desperately trying to reach a spacecraft's crew as they make their way back to Earth, his intended message being “Don't come back, 'cause you'll die if you do.” That crew, meanwhile, can't receive the scientist's intergalactic missives, and is consequently returning even though the astronauts have just left a planet on which human life is legitimately sustainable. So for two hours, it's a “damned if they do, damned if they don't” sort of thing, with Clooney's Lofthouse – who, for added fun, is painfully dying of cancer – looking increasingly morose as he and an abandoned child trudge through the snow en route to a stronger communication device, and the space travelers unknowingly head toward a planet-sized death trap. Happy Holidays, everyone!
In truth, for the feel-bad-a-thon that it is, the movie is commendable enough, and most definitely an improvement on Clooney's recent directorial efforts The Monuments Men and Suburbicon. Cinematographer Martin Ruhe's stark images, especially in the Arctic scenes, have a fair amount of potency, and a few of the visuals are arresting, never more so than when we're privy to what the copious release of blood would look like in a zero-gravity environment. Clooney himself gives a solid, forceful performance, as do the actors playing the potentially doomed returnees: Felicity Jones, David Oyelowo, Demián Bichir, Tiffany Boone, and that wizard of naturalistic charisma Kyle Chandler. And even though the film is a bummer, it's not not gripping; I was genuinely curious as to how this sci-fi saga with seemingly no positive conclusions could possibly resolve itself in a satisfying way. But The Midnight Sky keeps tripping over its own feet. The visuals and emotions largely work … but Alexandre Desplat's insanely intrusive score consistently quashes their effectiveness. Lofthouse's plight is moderately wrenching … but undermined by the too-convenient presence of that mute little girl (Caoilinn Springall) whom you just know is there solely for metaphoric purposes. Mark L. Smith's script is shrewdly circumspect regarding the details of Earth's incipient demise … but far too obvious in its flashbacks to Lofthouse's troubled romantic past. (The 34-year-old Ethan Peck, however, proves to be an eerie match – physically and vocally – for 34-year-old Clooney back in the day.) All told, the film is a worthy attempt yet an unfortunate miss, and it's just nihilistic enough to make you dread 2049 even more than you already were. Isn't that the same year Ryan Gosling got all lonely and miserable in a Blade Runner?