Boy, talk about a movie defying all expectations.
I wasn't particularly excited to see Hairspray. It's not like I had to be dragged kicking and screaming to it, but had there been something else playing at the same time, it wouldn't have taken much for me to jump ship. I'm a fan of John Waters' original 1988 film, and I've been learning to love classic Hollywood musicals over the last several years, but I'm not a big enthusiast of current Broadway sing-alongs. I'm also terribly weary of the trend to turn non-musical films into singing and dancing stage extravaganzas, and doubly suspicious of the attempts to turn these dubious creations back into films. Did we learn nothing from The Producers?
Well, as it turns out, we did: how not to make a bad movie. Because Hairspray is up there as one of the best times I've had in a Cineplex so far this year.
Hairspray starts big with "Good Morning Baltimore," a waste-no-time opener intended to get our toes tapping while introducing us to the movie's retro-kitsch feel. From there, the film barely pauses for a breath, one musical number chasing after another, maintaining its momentum and energy to deliver a tight 107-minute picture that keeps moving like the bomb-laden bus in Speed. Slow down, kid, and it's all over.
Like the John Waters movie upon which this is based, the musical Hairspray is about Tracy Turnblad (newcomer Nikky Blonsky), a plus-sized girl in the 1960s who loves to dance and dreams of being on "The Corny Collins Show," the daytime music program on the local Baltimore TV station. A whitebread Dick Clark wannabe, Corny (James Marsden, who attacks the role with a vigorous aplomb) shows Baltimore a pimple-free illusion of the face of bygone American youth. They sing, they dance, and they probably drink nothing but milk. Waters has always made delicious hay out of exposing the dirty words lurking behind the most pristine set of choppers, and this adaptation keeps much of his ribald sense of humor intact. The further we delve into the backstage shenanigans of this teenybopper talent contest--the fake relationship of its heartthrob leads, Link (Zac Efron) and Amber (Brittany Snow); the calculated choreography of Amber's mother, Velma Von Tussle (Michelle Pfeiffer)--the more faded the illusion becomes.
The real story is Tracy's, though. When open auditions are called to replace a dancer heading off on a mysterious nine-month vacation, Tracy convinces her gung-ho father (Christopher Walken) and reluctant mother (John Travolta) to let her try out. Though initially she is laughed right off the soundstage, with the help of the black kids who dance for the show on the monthly "Negro Day," she eventually breaks through and shines in the spotlight. Her crusade in the movie is to celebrate the wonderful things that make people different, be it their weight or the color of their skin or even the height of their hair, and the Hairspray crew uses the backdrop of the 1960s and the struggle for integration as its springboard to launch us into the big finale where, in true musical fashion, all is right in the world. And really, it may be trite, but it's fun, and why complain?
Nikki Blonsky is a true find. She is adorable as Tracy, singing and dancing up a storm. Her naïveté and earnestness are the stuff that real dreams are often built on, and it's impossible not to want Tracy to succeed. The whole cast is great, really. Amanda Bynes is the cutest thing ever as Tracy's straight-laced BFF Penny. (Even if her tan keeps changing in degrees. And what's with Michelle Pfeiffer's red-rimmed eyes? Partying on the set?) Somehow Christopher Walken makes every line, no matter how mundane, the funniest thing you've heard in your life. Plus, wait until you see the suit they dress Jerry Stiller in to play Mr. Pinky. He doesn't even need to open his mouth to get laughs.
The one obvious exception to the excellent casting is John Travolta, who dons a fat suit and drag to play Tracy's mother, Edna. You can forget the political controversy that has surrounded his hiring, because it pales in comparison to how awful his performance really is. After seeing him attempt to play a woman, I have serious doubts that John Travolta has ever met a female of the species, much less a drag queen. He seems to be playing some alien marshmallow rather than a human being. And just where the hell is his accent supposed to come from? My moviegoing chum said it best when she leaned over and asked, "Is he trying to sound like Dr. Evil?"
It's such a shame, because Edna Turnblad should have been one of our favorite characters from the movie. An overweight woman who hasn't left her house in nearly fifteen years, Tracy's crusade inspires in Edna the strength to love herself, and it's a triumph that is supposed to elicit cheers. Travolta's portrayal, unfortunately, debases the character, ensuring that we are always laughing at her and never with her. There's no forgetting that we're seeing Vinnie Barbarino in a fat suit, and it stops every scene in its tracks. The actor ruins what should have been the sweetest number in the entire movie, "(You're) Timeless to Me," the duet between Tracy's parents. Recreating a role originally played by the awesome Divine, a real drag queen whose name says it all, Travolta simply makes a fool of himself--something Divine would never do.
Outside of that, my only complaint about Hairspray is I'd actually have liked some better songs. Though the performance of each tune is vivacious and the mise-en-scene inventive, there is nothing memorable about any of the actual compositions. I didn't leave the theatre humming any of the melodies, and I couldn't recall any of them now without some prompting. Why does Broadway peddle in such blandness? Where are today's Ira Gershwins and Cole Porters? Why does every song only ever have to service the advancement of the plot? So many classic songs came out of musicals because composers weren't afraid to write something that could be extracted from their context and still stand strong. I can't imagine hearing any of these songs on the radio.
I know that sounds like a major quibble, but in reality, it's a minor one, something I thought about only after the movie was over. While Hairspray was playing, I didn't stop to ponder. I was too busy smiling, too busy going with the happy flow. Judging by the cheers that accompanied the finale, I'm doubting most viewers would have any trouble getting a kick out if, either. For such a dour summer, where even good ol' Harry Potter spends most of his fifth film wearing a frown, it's good for us all to get a healthy dose of pep.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the superhero series It Girl and the Atomics and the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.