Sunday, December 13, 2020

Dance Revolution: THE PROM

If nothing else, The Prom is a testament to the irresistible power of a great schmaltzy Broadway finale. For even though the movie loses its way for most of the second act, when the cast finally gathers as a group to belt out their big cathartic final number, the confetti flying and everyone getting their happy ending and a few bars to contribute to the whole, I teared up, tapped my toes, and felt pretty good about the whole thing. Based on Bob Martin and Chad Beguelin’s chipper stage musical of recent vintage, the movie has been directed by Ryan Murphy, whose usual gonzo go-for-broke faux-camp artificial wildness (the reason his TV work’s promising potential is usually sooner (Glee) or later (American Horror Story) driven off a cliff) is tamped down by the fact he’s not the writer. That’s why his work on The People vs. O.J. Simpson and Pose is his finest to date; he’s a talented technician when he has someone around to keep the narrative consistent. He loves bold colors and broad performances, a camera that glides on greased tracks to push in, fly back, or spin around characters, poking at touchy subjects with a heavy handed light touch in a style that stops well short of the apoplectic opulence of a Baz Luhrmann, but cuts quick and flashy enough all the same. Here the material is his sunniest, most cheerful, most actually optimistic instead of the not-so-hidden cynicism undergirding his previous trips back to high school. It has big “It Gets Better” energy. Perhaps it is because the satire is so mild, and largely contained in the outsized presence of a quartet of Broadway has-beens and never-weres at the center. Here’s Meryl Streep and James Corden and Andrew Rannells and Nicole Kidman — an odd combination — swanning into small-town Indiana hoping to soak up some free rehabilitating social media buzz by coming to the loud defense of a lesbian student (Jo Ellen Pellman) who won’t be allowed to go to prom with her date. The sneering down-the-nose condescension of the stars is good for a laugh, as they steal focus while declaiming that this scene isn’t about them, and the movie sometimes forgets it isn’t, too.

The plot deftly balances their pomposity with chipper prom prep and the small-town dilemmas of being gay in a conservative area, albeit with some recognition that the town wouldn’t homogeneously be opposed (Keegan-Michael Key is a warm-hearted theater-loving principal in contrast to the clenched PTA president, Kerry Washington). The first hour flies along with buoyant good spirts and toe-tapping numbers—a dancy promposal roundelay past lockers and bleachers; a clandestine closeted love ballad; a giddy getting-ready song in an unrealistically bustling mall; a wide-eyed tribute to the transportive and transformative ability of a great Broadway show. And it all reaches a great, sympathetic Act I climax that’s one of those beautiful win-but-lose send-em-to-intermission buzzing numbers. Unfortunately, most of the good songs are in that first hour, and the rest is a drag of tedious character beats that forces one to realize the characters are thin stock types, and the balance of Broadway divas to small-town teens goes a little awry. What are we to make of mean popular kids changing their homophobic ways just because an actor sings jokes about the Bible at them in a food court? It’s a cute number, but elides complications, and builds up the movie’s gleaming theatrical falseness. Still, we’re on our way to a great finale, and the cast is so high-energy, hoofing it well and selling corny theater punchlines. And the heart of the matter remains such a lovely open-faced introductory star turn from a young actress playing a likable girl whose struggles with being out and ignored in her cramped Indiana town resonates through the second act doldrums. I left humming the good songs and remembering the good times. Like a troupe of theater kids, it means well and has a good time, even if it's annoying sometimes.

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