There's no real reason that a film adapted from the 2016 stage musical The Prom needs to be as extraordinarily bad as the one that we have now been given by the professional mediocrity vendors at Netflix and gay terrorist Ryan Murphy. I have not seen it nor heard a scrap of the cast recording - it was not a financial success and its critical affection was warm but not glowing - but to judge by the evidence onscreen, it's perfectly banal in an inoffensive, nonthreatening way. The songs, by Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin, are devoid of any memorable melodies or rhymes that are more clever than labored, but they have the smiling smoothness of boilerplate showtunes; the script, by Beguelin and Bob Martin (who wrote the book of the musical), is full of appallingly smug jokes and limp meta-humor, when they're not reducing social issues to the most shallow possible understanding of how people function, but... no but there, actually. The script is pretty much bad. It's heart is in the right place, which doesn't count for all that much. But it is bad mostly by virtue of being broad and boisterous and pitched to the cheap seats, and there's not so much harm in a big splashy musical show doing that.

All of which is a roundabout way of getting to my suspicion that I would not like the stage version of The Prom, but I also see no reason to imagine that I'd hate it. The film version of The Prom, though, this I hate with some intensity. It takes the mediocrity that seems baked into the source material and amplifies it into shrill annoyance, thanks to Murphy's manic, sugar-addled directing style, which finds him returning to narrative features for the first time in many years, after having become a one-man television brand name over the past decade. There are other problems with The Prom than the directing; there are, I am tempted to say, only problems with The Prom, but that would be doing a disservice to Lou Eyrich's costume designs, which are colorful and playfully shiny and have the right quantity of theatricality to feel right for a musical, while being sufficiently plausible and physical that the hold up to the demands of a camera. And it would probably also being doing a disservice to the man behind that camera, Matthew Libatique, who certainly deserves better than the hollow digital look endemic to Netflix originals, and deserves better than the coked-up, restless camera movement that Murphy has required him to execute. But he keeps the film hopping along with bright, poppy colors, and one must never dismiss a colorful movie in these grim days of greyed-out cinematography.

The Prom is a gently tugged from the headlines story about a small-town PTA in Indiana that has decided to deal with the problem of having a 17-year-old lesbian, Emma (Jo Ellen Pellman), who wanted to take her girlfriend to prom, by canceling the dance altogether. This coincides with a seemingly unrelated event: the critical bonfire that has just burned from the face of the earth Eleanor!, a new musical about Eleanor Roosevelt, played by tarnished diva Dee Dee Allen (Meryl Streep). This has been the latest in a series of disastrous setbacks for Dee Dee and her costar, Barry Glickman (James Corden), but as they prepare to drink themselves into oblivion, Dee Dee overhears a news report about the controversy in Indiana, which includes the sentiment that Emma needs the intervention of an Eleanor Roosevelt-like figure. Which is 100% not something that anybody would ever say, and I regret to inform you that there will not come a point where the writing grows any subtler, more tethered to human reality, or at least funnier. This is a show in which homophobia get solved by singing the phrase "Love Thy Neighbor" over and over again, in one of several generically tuneful showstoppers. It is certainly not making a virtue of subtlety.

Anyway, Dee Dee, Barry, their chorus line friend Angie (Nicole Kidman) - Angie Dickinson, no less, which feels like a relic of the same non-joke that gives Dee Dee Allen the name of a legendary film editor - and Trent Oliver (Andrew Rannells), a former sitcom star who is now just one more in the ranks of unemployed actors in New York, all concoct a scheme to go to Indiana and grandstand about social justice as a way of restoring some of their waning reputations. This tale of celebrity hypocrisy and Emma's  story of finding acceptance and pushing back against intolerance and bullying happen simultaneously, and they cross-cut a lot, and sometimes they even involve the same events. But I cannot convince myself that they're ever actually working together, if only because the broad-as-a-barn-door satire of the celebrity plotline (about which I really cannot express my hatred strongly enough; it's very cocky and smarmy, in a "look how we wonderfully clever, progressive, sophisticated Broadway intellectuals can laugh at ourselves! This is how you know we're morally superior" way) and the pleasantly warm humanity of Emma's plotline (which the film transparently doesn't care about until the second half) don't mesh in any way, shape, or form. Just about the only thing they have in common is that they're not funny in roughly the same way: the script spells out and underlines its jokes, then elbows us in the ribs to make sure we got it, and this both kills the satire and smothers the humanity.

But again, the script problems are the problems of mediocrity. The filmmaking problems are the problems of a five-alarm garbage fire. The chief arsonist is Murphy, who has literally no facility with anything; the frantic camera movement I have mentioned, but it really can't be over-stated how terrible this is for the movie, which feels like it's suffering from a nervous tic. The effect of all the movement isn't too boost the film's energy, but to make it a draining, erratic experience, and to bury Casey Nicholaw's choreography in a morass of serpentine tracking shots that don't interact with the dancing at all. Between the camerawork and the de rigueur choppy editing, it's barely possible to see Nicholaw's choreography at all, in fact, though the little bits of it I was able to tease out of the chaos seemed nice.

The other telltale sign of a director gone wrong is the uniformly bad acting from a cast that, on paper, should have been way better than this (Kerry Washington and Keegan Michael-Key also get hefty parts as the bigoted PTA president and the school principal with a crush on Dee Dee, respectively). When performers as disparate in their skill sets as Streep and Corden are giving basically the same one-note, broadly comic performance of blind egotism, something has gone perilously awry (and for the record, I don't think I have ever seen Streep skating along the most superficial possible interpretation of a role more blatantly than she does here). Ariana DeBose, as Emma's closeted girlfriend, and Kidman, as a seen-it-all chorine with a healthy blend of cynicism and humor, are probably the best in show, if only by default; DeBose gets the closest this script has to a complex character, and Angie is the least obnoxious stereotype among the celebrities. And even then, Kidman has to contend with a big solo number in the form of a Bob Fosse homage that serves primarily to serve as evidence that we all need to do everything we can to make sure that she never gets within a thousand yards of Fosse-style choreography ever again.

The biggest problem though, by far, is the film's comic tone, and how it attempts to manage it. The humor here errs on the side of superficiality and stereotypes, with the script tossing out a bouquet of "out of touch idiot celebrity" gags in the first half, every single one of which feels carefully-engineered to be as loud and obvious as possible. It also spits off some "life in Middle America is impossibly drab and unsophisticated" jokes, though this is not helped out by a vision of Indiana that could not possibly look or feel more like suburban Los Angeles. The actors respond to these very large, very dumb jokes by mugging (Streep, Key, Rannells) or by swallowing up the jokes in an attempt to seem like people, who thus end up seeming just very stupid (Kidman, Washington), or by hungrily chomping their way through retrograde gay stereotypes, in a way that makes me feel very suspicious about Murphy's whole, like, "thing" (Corden). So it's all like being trapped in a hellish sitcom that pauses every now and then to give us the slender relief of anodyne musical numbers with artificial coloring.

All in all, it's pretty dispiriting, "you are having fun because I fucking said you're having fun" experience, and at 132 ineptly-paced minutes, there's plenty of time to wallow in how unbelievably tedious and witless it all is. All the love in the world to people who feel empowered by the superficial, predigested message of acceptance and embracing your identity, but this is an extremely crappy, cynical vehicle for that message, and borderline-unwatchable as, y'know, a movie.