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Meryl Streep, centre left, and James Corden in a scene from The Prom.Melinda Sue Gordon/The Associated Press

  • The Prom
  • Directed by Ryan Murphy
  • Written by Bob Martin and Chad Beguelin
  • Starring Meryl Streep, James Corden and Nicole Kidman
  • Classification PG; 130 minutes

Rating:

3 out of 4 stars

There will be a moment in The Prom that flicks one of two switches in your brain. Either you will be repulsed by its relentless razzle-dazzle-bam-pow-wow glamour and throw your hands up in the air in exhaustion, or you will let down your already weak defences and embrace the self-aware to-the-rafters energy and start to sing along. I guess I fell in sorta-love the moment that a group of overeager chorus members started belting out Godspell’s Day by Day while a nearby Andrew Rannells retched into a bucket.

That’s because, despite all marketing evidence to the contrary, The Prom isn’t some straight-faced old-timey ode to the power of music and the necessity of political wokeness. I mean, it is operating on a wavelength of sincerity, at least when it comes to themes of tolerance and acceptance and love is love is love, etc. Based on the short-lived Broadway production of the same name, director Ryan Murphy’s Netflix-sized adaptation is adamantly on the side of humanity, with a story pivoting on one Indiana teen girl’s fight to bring her girlfriend to the prom, despite the objections of a homophobic PTA. But – and this takes a few too many beats for Murphy to truly establish – The Prom is also a deliberately campy skewering of high-and-mighty blue-state good intentions and the self-serving foolishness of celebrity.

The film opens with Broadway divas Dee Dee (Meryl Streep) and Barry (James Corden) facing down an uncertain future, with their latest production – a musical take on the life of ... Eleanor Roosevelt? – being trashed by the critics. Looking for a camera-friendly redemption, the pair join up with Broadway wannabes Trent (Rannells) and Angie (Nicole Kidman) to stage a progressive cause célèbre with the Indiana teen, Emma (Jo Ellen Pellman) and her principal/ally Mr. Hawkins (Keegan-Michael Key). Cue the chorus etc.!

That plot may sound like a recipe for finger-wagging disaster, but it’s executed with tongue-in-cheek flavour (“We’re still celebrities! We still have power!”). Except when that tongue slips and lets loose an obvious groaner, which is regrettably 27 per cent of the time (I checked; this review is scientifically accurate, if not pitch-perfect). Still, Murphy’s blindingly bright, consistently energetic, never-ever-ever-still approach works more often than it doesn’t. Think of Murphy’s own Glee but with approximately 30 times the budget and star power.

The songs are memorable, too, which is critical considering that some of the cast – Corden and Kidman, in particular – need all the sonic power they’re afforded to make their warbling work. Streep, no stranger to either stage or movie musicals, is an absolute force to be reckoned with, though – even if her singing voice does seem these days to edge into a fascinating Slavic-accented tenor, which just might be a leftover effect from her time playing the “Russian cousin” in 2018′s Mary Poppins Returns. Rannells, Pellman and Key, meanwhile, are excellent through and through.

Still, the casting and performance of Corden casts a queasy pall over the entire proceedings. There is a longer, more complicated discussion to be had about who gets to play what kind of roles. If we’re all accepting, for instance, of the right for queer performers to take on straight characters, why can’t the reverse be true? But there is a difference between approaching such responsibilities with nuance, understanding and empathy, and whatever gross caricature Corden is deploying here.

In both his Broadway and film conception, Barry is conceived as an over-the-top preener – irrepressible and intentionally annoying and, as he proudly says, as gay “as a bucket of wigs.” But Corden employs a regressive, sour approach that reduces Barry to a collection of flaming, lisping, fluttery tics. It is a genuine wonder why Murphy, who has dedicated his entire career to subverting such clichés, decided to invite Corden to his Prom. It is a night to remember, for good and bad.

Prom is available to stream on Netflix starting Dec. 11.

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