Bil’s rating (out of 5): BB
USA, 2020. Dramatic Forces, Storykey, Netflix. Screenplay by Bob Martin, Chad Beguelin, based on the Broadway musical by Bob Martin, Chad Beguelin, Matthew Sklar, from an original concept by Jack Viertel. Cinematography by Matthew Libatique. Produced by Adam Anders, Dori Berinstein, Bill Damaschke, Alexis Martin Woodall, Ryan Murphy. Music by David Klotz, Matthew Sklar. Production Design by Jamie Walker McCall. Costume Design by Lou Eyrich. Film Editing by Peggy Tachdjian, Danielle Wang. Golden Globe Awards 2020.
In nowhere, Indiana, a young woman’s plan to take her girlfriend to her high school senior prom has caused such a furor that the PTA, under the leadership of a morally uptight scold (Kerry Washington), has decided to cancel the event. Far away in the liberal paradise of Manhattan, a Broadway musical about Eleanor Roosevelt has just opened to painfully bad reviews that sees its stars, played by Meryl Streep and James Corden, referred to as narcissists in the press. So distraught are they by the accusation that they care about nobody but themselves that the pair and their friends, which also include chorus girl Nicole Kidman and former sitcom star turned touring-company regular Andrew Rannells, decide to get involved in the first noble cause that they can get their hands on, and the social media furor over the canceled prom is selected as the winner. Heading across the country into the dreaded and dull midwest, they show up with their sparkling, overly sequined dazzle in a place whose fanciest restaurant is an Applebee’s, getting to know the heroine in question, played by Jo Ellen Pellman, and throwing their firepower behind her case against the ignorance she is facing entirely on her own. They eventually turn things around and get the prom back on, but a horribly cruel prank (on the level of Never Been Kissed, almost to the point of Carrie) ends the first half of the film and announces the need for greater effort in the second: this isn’t just a matter of throwing their celebrity weight around, these people need to face their own demons and, instead of leading this upbeat, optimistic young woman to her success, allow her to set the example for how they can help. This all sounds wonderful, and with a cast like this it’s hard to imagine how any of it doesn’t work, just the idea of Streep in pantsuits enjoying a romance with hot school principal Keegan-Michael Key should be enough to guarantee your ticket’s worth of entertainment. Unfortunately, this adaptation of the musical of the same name (based on true events) is a slog of an experience to get through, a tired and uninspiring version of Hairspray with poorer music and a confused script that has these characters wandering aimlessly in search of their next move and always seeming to find it by accident. Streep and Kidman are at least having a good time, and Washington fares well with her few moments as a woman struggling with her fears, but Corden, who has never really scared up much in the way of charisma or sincerity as either television personality or performer, is as trite as ever and can’t sell his own journey to self-empowerment that is meant to mirror the main character. At the centre of these magnificent actors in dull roles is a painfully shallow and uninteresting performance by newcomer Pellman, who keeps a stymied smile on her face no matter what her situation and never gives off the impression that there is anything emotional happening beneath the surface; without her to root for, the energy expended feels manic and desperate, pizzazz with no passion or purpose. Going beneath the surface is something that never happens anywhere here, and director Ryan Murphy keeps trying to compensate for it by flashing more colourful lights and adding more sequins to the clothes, so that when the film attempts poignancy it comes out laughable (best exemplified by the brilliant Tracey Ullman being woefully mishandled in a surprise cameo role).