Nicole Kidman has the showstopper in “The Prom.” She’s constructed like a Fosse girl, all long legs, points and angles. She plays Angie, a forever chorus girl who never got a shot at the lead. Angie is determined to inspire the embattled teen lesbian Emma (Jo Ellen Pellman), and so she digs deep, summoning the advice of her idol, director-choreographer Bob Fosse, to “give it some zazz.”
Welcome to the glitzy, wonderfully ridiculous world of Ryan Murphy’s “The Prom.” Murphy takes a 2018 Broadway musical that earned six Tony nominations, but won none and closed in a year, and stuffs the movie with dazzling color and big-name celebrities.
Murphy is the brains behind “Glee” but who also devised episodes of “American Horror Story” and the recent series “Ratched.” His first feature was the creaky “Eat, Pray, Love” with Julia Roberts. “The Prom” is entertaining and satisfyingly heartfelt.
As a musical, “The Prom” is no “La La Land.” It doesn’t break new ground and it has a broad, built-in appeal, thanks to the way it blends the traditional and the new.
Classic Broadway is embodied by four washed-up actors: Dee Dee (Meryl Streep), Patti LuPone mixed with Gloria Swanson; Barry (James Corden), “gay as a box of wigs”; Trent (Andrew Rannells), a smart-aleck Julliard graduate; and Angie, who’s spent years in the “Chicago” ensemble without getting a crack at Roxie Hart. Their latest production, “Eleanor! — The Eleanor Roosevelt Musical,” is so bad a vicious New York Times review closes it in one night.
In the course of one martini-soaked meeting, the actors become activists and zero in on their target, a small town in Indiana where Emma’s high school voted to cancel prom rather than let her attend with her girlfriend. What nobody knows is that Emma is dating Alyssa (Ariana DeBose) who’s still in the closet because of her mother (Kerry Washington), the PTA president and architect of this small-minded bigotry.
The world these Broadway liberals invade is a whimsical reprise of the conservative “Footloose” Midwestern town. With that, “The Prom” falls neatly into the genre of high school musicals. Murphy endows the dreariness of teen life with their own magic. Cherry blossoms swirl around Emma and Alyssa during their love song “Dance with Me.” Casey Nicholaw’s exuberant choreography on “Love Thy Neighbor” deftly traces a mall fountain from set to prop to a character in itself.
As the stern PTA president, Washington has the most thankless role of her career. It’s so out of touch for her that she barely knows how to play it. But the real weakness in the cast is Corden. He’s unconvincing as an effeminate gay man; he can cry when the script calls for tears, but his acting lacks emotional complexity. Unlike Corden, Streep wreaks havoc in the picture simply by a glance. At 131 minutes, “The Prom” suffers from overlength, but it’s poignant when it reminds us that small battles like Emma’s are still being fought.
“The Prom” is rated PG-13 and is streaming on Netflix.