Hairspray (United States, 2007)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Hairspray follows in the footsteps of Little Shop of Horrors and The Producers as campy movies that became even more campy stage musicals before returning to the screen in lavish song-and-dance productions. (Spamalot may be the next title to follow this increasingly familiar path.) While no one would accuse Hairspray of occupying the upper echelon of movie musicals, it's an entertaining diversion, which is about the most anyone could hope for from something ultimately spawned in the mind of John Waters. That plot is slight but the characters are likeable and the tunes are catchy (if not memorable). And the film doesn't put on airs. It's content to be what it is without trying to challenge A-list, would-be Oscar contenders like Chicago and Dreamgirls.

When Waters' Hairspray reached theaters in 1988, it was hailed as being the director's most accessible work to-date. It eventually made its way to Broadway before director Adam Shankman decided to bring it back into the motion picture realm. There are several nods to the original: Jerry Stiller, one of the stars of the non-musical version, has a small role; John Waters has a can't-miss-it cameo; and the production retains the genial nature of its predecessor. Due to a raft of nearly nonstop singing and dancing, however, this is a completely different experience. You don't have to like the original to appreciate this one (or, I suppose, vice versa).

It's Baltimore in 1962 and teenager Tracy Turnblad (Nikki Blonsky) dreams of being on an American Bandstand-like TV program with her idol, Corny Collins (James Marsden). She and her best friend, Penny (Amanda Bynes), rush home from school every day to see the program, much to the despair of her morbidly obese mother, Edna (John Travolta). She dreams of one day being a TV star - a fantasy that is nurtured by her nebbish father, Wilbur (Christopher Walken). When The Corny Collins Show announces open tryouts, Tracy is first in line. She is immediately dismissed by the show's producer, Velma Von Tussle (Michelle Pfeiffer), as being too fat, but Corny likes her and gives her a shot. She is an overnight sensation. When Velma tries to take tighter control over the show by canceling "Negro Tuesdays," Tracy joins a pro-integration march and soon becomes a fugitive from justice when she is false accused of assaulting a cop.

Less than 24 hours after seeing the movie, I can't hum a single song, but the dozen-or-so numbers are lively and their accompanying dances jaunty. That's more than can be said of Rent or The Producers or even (to an extent) Dreamgirls. The actors seem to be enjoying themselves and it comes across. Newcomer Nikki Blonsky is a firecracker; she explodes on the scene during the opening number and holds the camera's attention to the end. She is supported by a number of familiar names - Amanda Bynes, Christopher Walken (playing against type as a dweeb), Michelle Pfeiffer (who has re-invented herself as a witch), Queen Latifa (giving a standout performance - her best since Chicago)and James Marsden (a long way from superhero movies). There is, however, one significant casting mistake: John Travolta. It may have taken Travolta four hours to get ready each day, but when you look at Edna, what you see is Travolta in a fat suit in drag. The character never comes through. This doesn't even work as an over-the-top gimmick (which is what it was on stage, with Harvey Fierstein inheriting the role originated in 1988 by Divine). This is Travolta at his worst, and when he sings, there's an expectation that he'll segue into "Greased Lightin'."

Hairspray gazes back at the '60s through rose-colored glasses, offering nostalgia in place of reality. The film addresses the social unrest that marked the period, although it does so gently, replacing complexity and ugliness with broad caricatures and an impossible-to-dispute "racism is bad" message. When it comes to broaching a subject like this, which remains a black eye in the history of this country, Hairspray is in a difficult position. Doing too much risks turning the film into a downer and stripping away the PG rating in favor of something more adult. Doing too little risks diminishing the struggle and those who fought it. The filmmakers attempt to strike a balance; I'm not sure they get it right.

Hairspray is the kind of movie that could become a sleeper success if it wasn't being publicized so relentlessly. Its agenda is deceptively simple: an opportunity to spend a pleasant two hours in an air-conditioned auditorium. There are no special effects (unless you count Travolta's fat suit), no explosions, no chase scenes, and no shoot-outs. The film isn't deep or thematically rich or filled with amazing characters. Instead, it's an excursion into song and dance, and works admirably on that level. Hairspray exceeded my expectations and, while it isn't my favorite movie of the pool-and-beach season, it's enjoyable enough to earn a recommendation.

Hairspray (United States, 2007)

Run Time: 1:47
U.S. Release Date: 2007-07-20
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Nothing Objectionable)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1