The Prom review – is Ryan Murphy's musical the first film of the Biden era?

Taste the treacle as Nicole Kidman’s Broadway liberals rebuke a rural high school – and learn a few things about themselves

Like High School Musical on some sort of absinthe/Xanax cocktail, The Prom is an outrageous work of steroidal show tune madness, directed by the dark master himself, Ryan “Glee” Murphy, who is to jazz-hands musical theatre what Nancy Meyers is to upscale romcom or Friedrich Nietzsche to classical philology.

Meryl Streep and James Corden play Dee Dee Allen and Barry Glickman, two fading Broadway stars in trouble after their latest show closes ignominiously; it is called Eleanor!, a misjudged musical version of the life of Eleanor Roosevelt with Dee Dee in the title role and Barry as Franklin D Roosevelt. Barry also has financial difficulties (“I had to declare bankruptcy after my self-produced Notes on a Scandal”). After unhelpful press notices turn their opening night party at Sardi’s into a wake, Dee Dee and Barry find themselves drowning their sorrows with chorus-line trooper Angie (Nicole Kidman) and unemployed-actor-turned-bartender Trent (played by The Book of Mormon’s Andrew Rannells). How on earth are they going to turn their careers around?

Then Angie sees a news story trending on Twitter: a gay teenager in Indiana has been prevented by her high school from bringing a girl as a date to the prom. The teen in question is Emma (a nice performance from Jo Ellen Pellman, like a young Elisabeth Moss), her secret girlfriend is Alyssa (Ariana DeBose) and it is Alyssa’s fiercely conservative mom (Kerry Washington) who is behind the ban. Our heroic foursome declare that they will sweep into hicksville with all their enlightened values and glamorous celebrity, and campaign against this homophobia, boosting their prestige in the biz. They gatecrash a tense school meeting, declaring dramatically: “We are liberals from Broadway!”

The Prom is based on the Broadway stage musical by Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin which – incredibly – is based on a real-life case from 2010. This movie starts in Manhattan but doesn’t fully come to life until it moves to the school, with all its deeply serious drama, and then the raddled showbiz grownups arrive – as desperate, insecure, lonely and status-obsessed as any teenager – thus proving the ancient maxim that adult life is just high school with money.

The Prom is as corny as you like, and there is hardly a plot turn, transition or song-cue that can’t be guessed well in advance; but it’s so goofy that you just have to enjoy it, and there are some very funny lines. One narcissistic girl sings to herself in the mirror: “You have to hand it to me / Even I would do me.” When the local hotel doesn’t have a suite for Dee Dee, she slams both her Tony awards on the reception counter to prove how important she is, and then poor Barry does the same with his mystifying “New York Drama Desk” award statuette – and no one knows what it is. The night of the revived prom brings a location-cheat editing trick that I haven’t seen since The Silence of the Lambs.

Adult life is just high school with money ... Nicole Kidman and Jo Ellen Pellman.
Adult life is just high school with money ... Nicole Kidman and Jo Ellen Pellman. Photograph: Melinda Sue Gordon/Netflix

Could this be the first film of the Joe Biden era, as the liberals from the big city have to get over their snobbish disdain for the basket of deplorables and all come together? Well, maybe. It is amusing when the school’s principal Mr Hawkins (Keegan-Michael Key) happens to be a massive fan of Dee Dee and there is a spark – but Dee Dee cannot grasp the idea that a man could like Broadway musicals and be heterosexual. Of course there is no question of the music-theatre megastars seriously conceding anything to conservative-minded locals, other than the time-honoured virtue of putting aside your self-love for a bit. But self-love is the whole point.

• The Prom is released on 4 December in cinemas, and on 11 December on Netflix.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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