Ryan Murphy’s deal with Netflix may be hyped as the biggest in television history, but if he’s going to serve up re-processed cheese like The Prom, it’ll be hard to blame customers for drifting elsewhere. With his take on nurse Ratched hardly winning prizes for originality, and American Horror Story’s last few seasons doubling down on smug self-indulgence rather than thrills, Murphy’s lack of actual ideas suggest he’s ready for retirement.
The Prom punctures the idea that Netflix make movies; this has the look and the air of a CBS Saturday night shiny-floor sing-along version of Grease for nostalgic seniors, right down to the painfully fake backdrops. Against an ersatz CGI Broadway, we join the first and last night of a musical about Eleanor Roosevelt (biting satire!), and ego-centric lead actors Dee Dee (Meryl Streep) and Barry (James Corden). Looking for a way to publicise their show and themselves, they enlist a couple of other performers (including Nicole Kidman as chorus girl Angie Dickinson) and descend on a small town in Indiana, where a conspiracy of events are being organised to prevent a same-sex couple from going to their prom.
Without any decent songs to offer, The Prom doubles down on arch references; Kidman’s tribute to Bob Fosse, entitled Zazz, is one of the few to pass muster. The school representatives (Kerry Washington, Keegan-Michael Key, the latter conforming to the norms he once satirised) seem to have drifted in from a 1950’s movie, and even if Indiana’s attitudes to same-sex couples still make headlines today, the sexual politics lack self-awareness. The actors are vaguely lampooned as ‘narcissists’ for exploiting the situation for their own profit, but it’s hard not to see The Prom as providing exactly the same exploitative opportunity for Murphy. In a role that’s the inverse of his free-thinking The Book of Mormon breakthrough, Andrew Rannells has a song in which he attempts to convert mall Christians, introduced with a hectoring shout of ‘You can’t cherry pick the bits of the Bible you want to believe.’ The boys gyrate their approval while Murphy’s camera upskirts the girls; the viewer at home might wonder why these kids shouldn’t be allowed to believe whatever they want?
While American audiences may not be aware of James Corden’s history as a comic in the UK, from his sketch show Horne and Corden to his truly revolting gay-bashing, racist, sexist, bloke/sports talk show World Cup Live; The Prom makes sure they know now. A sizzle reel of Corden’s career, built on regular homophobic offences might well be longer than this entire movie. The Prom claims to be about choosing your own personal path to freedom, but the endless, teeth-grindingly crass product placement does for any notions other than rabid consumerism. See Meryl Streep visit AND be satisfied by a visit to Applebees! See Adriana DeBoise enjoy AND be satisfied by ice cream provided by Haagen Daas! See James Corden shrug off his family issues in front of a McDonalds! In The Prom, your sexuality is just a label to wear as you take your place in the processing line, the brand turned towards the camera. For a film supposedly about finding your identity, The Prom offers nothing but fifty flavours of sell-out. From Call Me By Your Name to Moonlight, gay cinema has taken giant steps of late, but the dumbing down of current issues for cheap laughs in vapid straight entertainments like The Prom set the cause back 40 years.