Hairspray – Movie review (***1/2)

(Originally posted on 7-29-7)

Ok, I will admit right up front that I am only passingly familiar with the original John Waters movie on which the Broadway musical (and thus by extension this film version of the musical) was based, and even though I can hold my own in a casual film geek conversation that involves John Waters movies, I really can’t pull off an in depth critical conversation of his filmography.

I have no real excuse other than to say that during that period in my life when Waters was making his cross over from truly independent film to more mainstream type fair I was busy watching independent foreign horror and martial arts movies (not much different than what I do today). Having said that, based on how sweet and fun the story was for this movie, I might go back and revisit the whole Waters’ oeuvre.

The story, quickly, takes place in Baltimore in the early 60’s and involves the ever optimistic though short and overweight Tracy Turnblad (Nikki Blonsky) who is obsessed with the Corny Collins show – a live, local dance show. Her and her best friend Penny Pingleton (Amanda Bynes) watch it religiously and hurry home after school in order to not miss it. It is, naturally, the dream and hope of Tracy to one day be one of the dancers on the show.

Yeah, fairly old hat, I know.

The real fun of it all, though, is how unforced the moral is and how much joy and energy comes with it. Normally, movies or books or, well, just about anything really, that addresses, in a moral sense, themes of racism and physical exclusion and social status approach them in a brooding or heavy handed or preachy manner. Hairspray doesn’t do any of that, which is a nice change for once.

The performances are all fun. Nikki Blonsky was up to the requirements of the role and brought a lot of perky optimism. I was disappointed during the marketing of the movie that they never mentioned her, even though she is the center piece of the whole thing. Amanda Bynes was serviceable as Nikki’s best friend. Michelle Pfeiffer was great as the evil mother of the reigning Miss Hairspray (the big contest for the favorite dancer on the Corny Collins Show). James Marsden was surpising as Corny Collins himself, because based on his lackluster performances in the X-Men movies as Cyclops I wasn’t even sure he was a real human. Zac Efron as Link Larkin the Bye, Bye Birdie in training type of heart throb central character was believable. Queen Latifah always seems to come alive in musicals, in non singing roles in other movies she always seems so much bigger than what is required, but here she fits in perfectly. Christopher Walken is his usual lovably uncomfortable self as Nikki’s father. I even liked John Travolta’s turn at cross-dressing as Tracy’s beat down by the world mother, Edna. There were a couple moments where he was singing that I even had flashbacks to Grease.

Movie musicals are a tough, tough beast to pull off successfully. Our cultural expectation of how entertainment is presented to us has changed a lot since the heyday of the musical – especially filmed entertainment. Things you can get away with on a stage just don’t feel right on film. Just look at the movie version of the musical The Producers. I don’t know how it worked on Broadway, but in the film the beginning and the end just felt too strained, like it was trying too hard. It spent too much time trying to set up the main characters and their storylines which took away from the heart of the story – putting on a big stinky musical about Hitler. Hairspray doesn’t have that problem. It jumps right into the story and let’s the characters unfold as it goes.

If I had any real problems, it was probably with the chemistry between some of the actors – mainly Walken and Travolta. As fun as they are to watch in this film, you just never really believe they are married and have a history with each other and sometimes it is hard to forget that Travolta is in fact John Travolta dressed as a woman. I was surprised that the chemistry was much stronger between Link and Tracy than I expected it to be – and that was mainly due to the great job that Efron delivered.

So, where The Producers failed as a movie Hairspray succeeds. It is fun, energetic, colorful and rarely gets bogged down in exposition. Plus there is a great moral and everyone looks like they are having fun. What more could you want?

Now, apart from being a soft touch for stuff like this, the reformed geek completist in me will have to go back and watch the original John Waters movie and then see the original stage version just so I can see how it has changed and adapted from medium to medium.

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