It’s not the best musical, but it was fun.
The head of the PTA of Edgewater, Indiana, Mrs. Greene (Kerry Washington), cancels the prom rather allowing a female student named Emma Nolan (Jo Ellen Pellman) attend as an open lesbian. Emma, who already lives with her grandmother Bea (Mary Kay Place) after getting disowned by her parents, gets harassed over being gay by most of the students, except for her closeted girlfriend Alyssa (Ariana DeBose), Mrs. Greene’s daughter. At the same time, Broadway Stars Dee Dee Allen (Meryl Streep) and Barry Glickman (James Corden) have a show close on opening night (apparently). They meet up with failed actors Trent Oliver (Andrew Rannells) and Angie Dickinson (Nicole Kidman) and decide to build up some good publicity by helping Emma. While the principal of the school, Tom Hawkins (Keegan-Michael Key), is excited by the presence of the Stars, particularly Dee Dee, it turns out that a group of actors might not be the best at relating to a group of conservative Indianans… until the musical magic takes over, at least.
I get why this film isn’t quite taking off the way Netflix clearly hoped. It’s tough to really give this movie a fair evaluation because it’s a happy uptempo musical addressing a dark and personal subject like homophobia. While there are a ton of musicals that have handled unpleasant subjects well, Urinetown and Rent, for example, this movie sort of hand-waves any actual consequences at the end of the story. It’s hard to pretend that it’s giving the weight that Emma’s struggle deserves while also watching a ton of people literally change their minds in a 4 minute song. Okay, it’s 4:31, per the soundtrack, but that extra 31 seconds doesn’t add a lot.
That said, if you’re willing to accept unrealistic and massive changes as part of the magical logic of a musical world, then this movie’s pretty good. The cast is amazing, as you probably guessed when you see Kerry Washington, Meryl Streep, Keegan-Michael Key, and Nicole Kidman on the cast list. That’s a murderer’s row of acting and they mostly bring their A-game. I still have not forgiven James Corden for Cats and his performance in this movie as a gay stereotype did not help, but he clearly loves to do a musical number and that really does help every time he’s on screen. Jo Ellen Pellman, who is making her film debut, comes out strong, particularly as one of the only people who sings like she’s actually in a Broadway musical, and, being a young queer woman, she adds a level of believability to the character that this movie needed.
The songs are all very entertaining and the choreography is likewise. I particularly like the song by Meryl Streep “The Lady’s Improving,” which is performed by cutting between her singing it in the present and her past performance for which she apparently won a Tony. It’s a nice effect that you couldn’t really pull off on stage and it gives you a little bit more insight into the character. I’ll also say that almost any song that Jo Ellen Pellman sings stands out in the film, not just because of her voice but because they all feel the most sincere.
Overall, it’s a pretty good movie, it just has some fundamental issues on trying to tackle something bigger than it can handle.
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