Neil Patrick Harris, Ricky Martin, Scott Evans, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Harvey Fierstein, Sean Hayes, Cheyenne Jackson, Sir Ian freaking McKellen, Leslie Jordan, Nathan Lane, John Cameron Mitchell, Gavin Creel, Ru fucking Paul, Billy Porter, Brooks Ashmanskas, Tituss Burgess, Javier Muñoz, Rory O'Malley, Alan Cummin - my list could go forever. There are millions of queer artists who would have killed in the part of the gay Barry Glickman in 'The Prom'. But here we are, three musicals in, and James motherfucking Corden - a cis white man - is cast in a gay role.
On the night of the Broadway debut of 'Eleanor!: The Eleanor Roosevelt Story', the musical is met with bad reviews of the show's leads Dee Dee Allen (Meryl Streep, 'Little Women', 'Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again'), a two time Tony winner, and Barry Glickman (Corden, 'Cats', 'Peter Rabbit'), her frequent collaborator. Along with friend Angie Dickinson (Nicole Kidman, 'Bombshell', 'The Beguiled') and actor/bartender Trent Oliver (Andrew Rannells, 'A Simple Favour', 'The Boys in the Band'), the four turn to Twitter to see what they can jump on to boost their public perception. This is where they see an article about Emma Nolan (Jo Ellen Pellman), who has been banned from her high school prom as she wants to bring her not -yet-out girlfriend, Alyssa Greene (Ariana DeBose, 'Hamilton', Steven Spielberg's upcoming 'West Side Story'). The Broadway actors pack it up and head to Indiana to save the day, but things do not go as planned.
This is a hard one. It's not as simple as remove James Corden and the film is fixed, but he is the film's biggest issue. Everything you have heard is true - his performance is extremely offensive, problematic, and perpetuates hurtful gay stereotypes. This, of course, doesn't come from just Corden, but he could have turned down the role so that an LGBTQI+ person could have maybe taken it... but I guess he wanted that possible Oscar nomination. His character is meant to be the heart of the film, but hearing Corden talk about how it was hard to come out and how his parents abandon him loses any emotional weight because it comes out of his mouth, with a terrible American "gay" accent (Kidman, the Australian, is giving the best accent here).
I just don't understand how you have this queer story, with a lead gay character in this story of acceptance played by a straight man playing on some of the most offensive gay stereotypes on film in the last decade. This is 2020. You're not Cam from 'Modern Family' (that's a whole beast on its own to unpack); audiences expect and deserve better. If you are straight and portraying an LGBTQI+ character, you must be respectful - and Corden feels like he doesn't care by making sexuality the joke. This film is directed by a queer man, Ryan Murphy (Creator, TV's 'Glee' and 'American Horror Story'), and yes, he is also problematic, but his work here never gets any kind of red flag.
I'm going to say something controversial, yet brave: Meryl Streep should also not have been in this film. Yes Ryan Murphy, I get it, you want to work with her, and having her in your big musical about lesbians gives you a better chance at the Oscars, but Streep is just too distracting. It shouldn't have been her movie; this is an ensemble piece. The role is clearly a spoof of a Broadway veteran like Patti Lapone or Bernadette Peters... where they both busy? This is also my second problem - the film is a love letter to Broadway, yet Andrew Rannells (I love you, I would die for you, you're doing amazing things) is essentially the only Broadway actor here. He is also the best-known queer actor in the film. I understand both Netflix's and Murphy's desire to cast bigger names to create more of an appeal, but if there is one thing we should have learned from 'Cats' it's that star power in musicals doesn't always equal a good thing. Having big names is fine - but when they are a detriment to the story, I hate it. This goes back to the Corden problem - the fact he is second billed, right after Streep and above Kidman. This makes it clear that they thought he would bring a big audience. He is the new Ellen in a way, but Corden isn't a big-time actor - he is fine as Peter Rabbit, but a serious actor he is not. Casting him, along with the performance he gives, alienates what should have been the easiest community to get in for this kind of film - queer audiences and the theatre kids - and that's what absolutely degusts me.
Finally, Nicole Kidman and Andrew Rannells are phenomenal and not in enough of the movie. Both have really fun musical numbers, and you can tell they are having a blast in their roles. In any scene with the four leads I was always looking for them, averting my eyes from the horror that is Corden.
Okay, some technical stuff. The cinematography in this film consists of spinning the camera - which is fine in the musical numbers, but when it's just a scene of Streep and Kegan Michael Key ('Toy Story 4', 'The Lion King') talking in a hallway, it just causes motion sickness. Also, in almost every musical number we get close-up tracking shots... way to capture the grandness of a musical. There are also a lot of out-of-place reaction shots, especially in big musical numbers. Someone will be belting out a note and we cut to Corden pulling some offensive face.
Every musical number is signalled by a harsh lightening change. It's a move that sometimes works, but it does become offputting after the third time and ends up jarring.
I just don't understand how you have this queer story, with a lead gay character in this story of acceptance played by a straight man playing on some of the most offensive gay stereotypes on film in the last decade.
As for the musical numbers themselves, they are fine. The big group numbers have a lot of energy, including 'Tonight Belongs to You' and 'It's Time to Dance'. But in a lot of solo songs, we get cutaways to what they are talking about instead of staying in the moment. Sometimes this works, like when Streep is singing about being on stage, but other times like when they talk about the debate team or their youth it's unnecessary. Outside of the group numbers, they want 'It's Not About Me' - Steep's song when they first arrive in town - to be the big one, but it's so rushed. Again, the prize goes to 'Zazz' by Kidman, a 'Chicago'-inspired number, and Rannells' 'Love Thy Neighbor', which feels like it's taken straight out of 'The Book of Mormon'. The musical numbers are good, even if they are sometimes too spread out. The worst are any solos Corden gets, especially the sad ones; I do not have any sympathy for this character.
This movie also did the trending thing of random hip-hop dance breaks. Listening back to the original musical, these dance breaks are there but they are much smoother, and not hip-hop inspired.
The plot is all over the place. Murphy, who is more interested in television - and even that's questionable - is lost here. Everything is rushed and there is no breathing time: the film starts, their show falls, they go to Indiana, they sing, the Prom is back, end of act 1 (and there is literally a fade to black in case you didn't know this was the end of act 1 and the start of act 2). This is an almost two-and-a-half-hour movie, and everything goes in one ear and out the other. The film also rushes anything with Emma to get back to the stars - which is unfortunate as Jo Ellen Pellman is really adorable and reminds me of a young Drew Barrymore at times. Time means nothing in this film; we go from a nighttime PTA meeting to the stars checking in at a hotel, to them finding a place to perform, to that performance, to the hotel where Streep is asked to dinner by Key, to daytime school Promposal, to that nighttime dinner with Streep and Key. Speaking of their love story subplot, it was unnecessary - and yes, it's in the show, but I think the casting here is wrong and could have been cut. The plot also has no impact: this titular prom seems like it doesn't mean anything to anyone. Yes, you have characters telling us it's important, but they don't really seem to care.
Barry also has a subplot of being close to his hometown and wanting to reach out to his parents, who haven't spoken to him since he came out. Not to beat a dead horse, but seeing Corden play out this emotional drama was painful - it was actually hurtful; this straight man "acting" gay and trying to provoke an emotional response was, once again, degusting. His mother is played by... Tracy Ullman ('Into The Woods', 'Onward') who along with Streep is representing the bad wig department. It was another odd casting choice, especially for a small role.
The last note on the casting, Kerry Washington ('Django Unchained', 'Cars 3') cast as the head of the PTA and the face of the "town's" (we never really see any people in this town) outcry that a gay person running prom was a strange one. Washington is a pretty big activist for a lot of issues. She was a big part of the #MeToo movement, and yes, the character is set up for a redemption arc, but like everything else, it's forced and not thought out.
Netflix clearly wants this to be a big film. They don't give theatrical releases to a lot of their content, usually only the ones they want to consider for awards season. I just ask them to do better. Netflix has been a great platform for different stories from all different walks of life, and 'The Prom' could have been another huge voice in that line-up.
'The Prom' could have been something special like the show was on Broadway, but instead of listening to the message the show has about negative effect star-power and acceptance, the movie actively dodges those themes. Removing Corden doesn't fix this mess, but it would have been a start. I can't say I don't recommend it; these are great songs and sung well here. I would catch myself smiling at the musical numbers, and I haven't stopped listening to the soundtrack. The film's opening credits are just the actor's names in the logo font, and I got chills with the score and seeing that on the big screen, with Rannells and Kidman reason alone to watch, along with newcomer Pellman. I love musicals - they have an energy no other genre has, but the lesson from 'The Prom' is the same as 'Cats': make something that's not for the masses, but true to the story.
Also, the movie gets Streep to rap in the credit's song, and that's honestly amazing.