TV titan Ryan Murphy continues to struggle to find his cinematic side
Ryan Murphy has become a TV titan in the last decade, creating such diverse hits as Glee (2009-2015), American Horror Story (2011-), American Crime Story (2016-), and Pose (2018-). Having signed up with Netflix on a nine-figure deal, the creator has been short of producing content, from the likes of The Politician (2019-2020), Hollywood (2020), and Ratched (2020) proving his quality hand. While Murphy has triumphed on the TV side of things, he’s a had a more uneven record as a film director; we’ve had such great films like Normal Heart (2014), but we’ve also had some indigestible ones such as Eat, Pray, Love (2010). With only his fifth film as a director, Murphy has brought us his first film under his Netflix deal: The Prom (2020).
The Prom is adapted from the 2018 Broadway musical of the same name. The story is about four narcissistic and down-on-their-luck Broadway stars (Meryl Streep, James Corden, Nicole Kidman, and Andrew Rannells) who seek their way back into the spotlight by becoming activists. They find a cause to “fight for” with Emma (Jo Ellen Pellman) a lesbian high schooler in Indiana who is having her prom canceled by the PTA (headed by Kerry Washington) because she wants to bring another girl as a date. Our Broadway actors wash up on the small Indiana town and try to push their selfish activism for Emma to the fore.
The original musical on which The Prom is based, and the film itself, were clearly produced in a moment of extreme ideological polarization in the world and America. This is exemplified in a comical fashion in the first act of the film, where we see the faux-liberal attitudes of the New Yorkers, who see everything in Indiana as a clichéd intolerant region. The conservative side of some Indiana residents is also played to comical effect, “This isn’t America, this is Indiana!” some chant in the crowd. I was rather intrigued to see an exploration of this seeming unbridgeable divide in musical form. Murphy certainly attains a sense of balance and slow character exploration in this first act, but the entire affair seems to overwhelm him as the film goes on.
Perhaps Murphy has been blessed with too talented a cast. The result is that he finds it hard to structure The Prom in order to give everyone some screen time. The result is that nearly all the characters remain superficial and never seep into viewers’ minds. One particular cast member who seemed poorly utilized was Nicole Kidman, whom I’d forget is the film until she pipes up a line ever half-hour or so. The likes of Streep and Corden are the performers who are able to best transcend the messy editing and structure. This due to some clear interest by Murphy in their characters, and also because both actors seem to be the most comfortable with their casting. In fact, it is Corden, over Streep, who is able to humanize his character most, this thanks to his spectacular comedic timing and some short but poignant dramatic moments.
I was rather sad to see that Emma’s story is somewhat shunned as the film progresses. It is slightly hypocritical as the film seems to be criticizing and ridiculing the Broadway characters for doing exactly what the filmmakers themselves are indulging in. Jo Ellen Pellman wowed me completely with her dramatic, musical, and charismatic talent, drawing the attention to her whenever she was onscreen and giving a helpful dimension to her character’s journey. Her chemistry and story with her closeted girlfriend, played by Ariana DeBose, was only dedicated two musical numbers and yet due to the talent of the performers, was begging to be the centerpiece of the film. It was incredible to see two young talents be given such a platform to breakout, sadly Murphy seemed to suppress their quality and ambition for the likes of his film stars instead.
The Prom also suffers from a barrage of musical numbers, which at one point feel overwhelming. I’m all for a good and escapist musical, but I feel numbers should be earned or else help move the story forward. The Prom seemed to break into song whenever it didn’t know how to naturally shift its narrative. This makes for some sloppy storytelling as well as a diluted effect of each subsequent song.
As the finale draws near, The Prom seems to be at a loss of how to wrap up. This causes it to shift into a flipflopping narrative about how it wants its character arcs conclude. Knowing Murphy and his work on TV, I was hoping to see his sleight hand at a gut-wrenching and pensive finale; however, we instead get an easy and rather lazy ending that seems too good to be true. It is true that gay films have always been forced to end in tragedy, leaving an escapist and fantastical ending only for straight films. While these resolutions deserve to be diversified, they still need to be well-constructed. Escapism has to be balanced with a certain reality in order to keep a sense of credibility. The abrupt shift in The Prom of prejudiced characters into gung-ho liberals was cringey and sloppy to watch. In fact, every character seemed to get their perfect ending, leading the film to feel slightly ignorant of the times it is being released in. A more complex and less perfect finale (which can still be happy and cheesy!), would have allowed the film’s messages to come across with ease and sound less preachy. Instead, our characters seemed to be in an Oprah giveaway, where each nit bit dream was fulfilled.
In the end, The Prom proves to be a musical that starts promising but trips over itself overtime with confusion about where to center its story, its construction and placement of musical numbers, and its handling of the finale. The result is an enjoyable yet disappointingly shallow viewing.