John Waters’ 1988 film Hairspray marked that precarious moment when it looked like Waters would successfully transform from the ultimate filmmaking outsider to a pillar of Hollywood. That never happened, of course.
The Generation-X comedies came along and turned his movies into museum pieces. As clearly as Waters saw through the hypocrisies of the baby-boom era he grew up in, he could be woefully out of touch with the present (Cecil B. DeMented and the all too aptly named A Dirty Shame). That didn’t stop the zeitgeist from coming around again to Hairspray, which after all was about how you can’t fight the future. It became a hit Broadway musical five years ago, and now it’s a musical film based on the stage show, repackaged in Day-Glo colors and definitely new and improved. Set in Baltimore in 1962, the movie stars Nikki Blonsky as Tracy Turnblad, a high-schooler who dreams of dancing to the latest pop tunes on The Corny Collins Show, the local version of American Bandstand. Her mom Edna (John Travolta) warns her that big girls like the Turnblad women don’t get to be on television, but Tracy’s dance moves win her a spot on the show, and she even catches the eye of the program’s dreamiest guy dancer (High School Musical’s Zac Efron).
If the idea of Travolta donning a fat suit and playing a hefty hausfrau doesn’t seem terribly appealing, this is nonetheless his first interesting screen performance since 1998’s Primary Colors. He has spent most of his career playing guys who don’t lack for self-confidence, but he makes Edna a woman who’s ashamed of her size and needs the example of her daughter and the prodding of her husband Wilbur (Christopher Walken) to come out of her shell. The insecurity quivering underneath all that fake flesh is something we seldom see from this actor. He can still dance, too. When Edna finally finds it in her to shake her oversized ass in the climactic number “You Can’t Stop the Beat,” it’s a sight to inspire awe and fear. There’s no similar shading in Blonsky’s Tracy, but maybe that’s a good thing. It certainly works in her favor when Tracy notices that villainous station manager Velma Von Tussle (Michelle Pfeiffer) is keeping The Corny Collins Show racially segregated. Tracy sees that the situation is wrong without having to think about it, and that makes it all the more endearing that she’s so willing to risk her newfound fame to integrate the show. This is the first professional acting role for Blonsky, and there’s no arguing with her musical chops — she easily negotiates songs such as the opening “Good Morning Baltimore” and turns her 4’10” frame into a whirling dynamo in the dance number “Ladies’ Choice.”
The songwriters here are Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, the former famous for penning the numbers for the South Park movie. While nothing here quite matches “Blame Canada,” the songs are unfailingly energetic and have their share of verbal wit, which director Adam Shankman (who also doubles as choreographer) has a hard time matching. However, he does sprinkle Tracy’s lovestruck ballad “I Can Hear the Bells” with funny sight gags. There are too many up-tempo numbers strung together in the middle, and despite screenwriter Leslie Dixon’s jabs at white characters who think black people are all things cool, the movie never quite escapes that mentality. The civil-rights hymn “I Know Where I’ve Been” is the worst misstep, tipping the movie’s righteousness over into sanctimony, and it’s not a good look at all.
Still, that’s over in the time it takes to sneak out to the bathroom, and it’s well compensated for by the multifarious contributions from this cast, most of whom have their own numbers to cut loose with: James Marsden manages a Rat Pack-style hipster vibe as Corny Collins (“The Nicest Kids in Town” and the title song), Brittany Snow conceals a snarl under her sweetness as Velma’s mean, popular daughter (“The New Girl in Town”), Elijah Kelley sings and moves with liquid grace as the dancer who inspires Tracy’s crusade (“Run and Tell That”), and Amanda Bynes, as Tracy’s best friend Penny, proclaims to hysteria-inducing effect her lust for black men (“Without Love”). The veterans supply effective changes of pace from these high-energy youngsters — Pfeiffer slinks her way through her aria “(The Legend of) Miss Baltimore Crabs,” and Walken does a winning soft-shoe duet with Travolta, “You’re Timeless to Me.” If all that isn’t enough to watch for, the movie is littered with cameos by actors from previous incarnations of Hairspray: Jerry Stiller, Ricki Lake, Waters himself as a flasher — no surprise. The cast’s flair and strength in depth are a joy to behold, allowing this movie to glide right over its flaws. Hairspray has all the nutritional value of a giant spool of cotton candy spiked with Red Bull. Happily, it gives you the same kind of buzz.
Starring Nikki Blonsky and John Travolta. Directed by Adam Shankman. Written by Leslie Dixon, based on John Waters’ screenplay and Thomas Meehan and Mark O’Donnell’s musical. Rated PG.