What matters more when assessing a movie?
The experience you had watching it in the moment, or your memory of that moment in the days, weeks, and years that follow? It’s an important question to keep in mind when writing critical reviews, and one that has no easy answer. While I do my best to keep the goals of each film in mind when assessing them, I see as much value in offering a moving, exhilarating, or engaging viewing experience as I do in raising questions and ideas that linger in your mind— my official position is to weigh them equally and be skeptical of any films that leave one behind in favor of the other. With this review of The Prom, a movie that I found enjoyable if unexciting in the moment, I am making an exception. My memory of watching this movie has soured so rapidly that I can’t help but hold it responsible.
Adapted from the 2018 Broadway musical of the same name and directed by TV-titan Ryan Murphy, The Prom starts with a group of Broadway actors getting the worst reviews of their careers and deciding to become celebrity activists to fix their brands. They settle on traveling to Edgewater, Indiana to help local teenager Emma (Jo Ellen Pellman), whose community chose to cancel prom to avoid her bringing a date of the same sex. The cast is heavy on name recognition, with Meryl Streep and James Corden as fading stage stars Dee Dee Allen and Barry Glickman, Nicole Kidman as their friend and longtime chorus girl Angie, Keegan-Michael Key as the compassionate Principal Hawkins, and Kerry Washington as the conservative PTA-head Mrs. Greene.
As can be expected from a Ryan Murphy project, The Prom is a whirlwind of saturated color and stylized dramatics in which the camera stays in near constant motion. That kind of energy serves the musical set pieces well, and the songs had me toe-tapping most of the way through, but this approach also has some serious drawbacks. The constant-ness of it eventually becomes tiresome as you’re watching, but after you finish, without the energy there in your face to string you along, its failings become more egregious. The visual and tonal homogeneity take almost every song-and-dance number and mush them into one single lump of memory, a sincere disservice to a genre built for creating moments that endure.
On top of this, The Prom lacks the tonal touch to truly differentiate the satirical from the sincere, which unfortunately muddles its message. Are celebrities out-of-touch narcissists that should stay in their lane, or individuals that make genuine change in the lives of everyday people? Is homophobia so deep-seeded an issue that it can take years for a parent to accept their child, or can it be completely overcome in the space of a single song? The rare instances when it seems to get a grip on these questions are when Streep, Key, and Washington step in to project the necessary depth, but their co-stars either squander their opportunities to do so (Corden) or aren’t given opportunities to begin with (Kidman). In the moment, watching stars like Streep and Kidman have so much fun carries the experience, but the whole movie dissipates without them holding your attention. The Prom has the unenviable distinction of being worse than it seems and as bad as you remember it to be.
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