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Hairspray   B+

New Line Cinema

Year Released: 2007
MPAA Rating: PG
Director: Adam Shankman
Writer: Leslie Dixon
Cast: Nikki Blonsky, John Travolta, Michelle Pfeiffer, Christopher Walken, Amanda Bynes, James Marsden, Queen Latifah, Brittany Snow, Zac Efron, Elijah Kelley, Allison Janney.

Review by Rob Vaux

I've always suspected that John Waters made the original Hairspray in order to trick suburbanites into renting Pink Flamingos. It explains how he could tone down his trademark subversion with such a sweet (and eminently mainstream) story... which makes the sucker punch all the nastier when some unsuspecting soccer mom fires up Flamingos and sees a drag queen eating dog shit. But such suppositions notwithstanding, Hairspray became a cult classic in its own right, spawning a hit Broadway musical that has now returned full circle as a big-time film under the helm of new director Adam Shankman. If Waters indeed intended the piece as some kind of grand bait-and-switch, I'm sure he couldn't be happier. This new version is such irrepressible fun that it could easily lead a whole new generation of prudes into Flamingos' cackling embrace.

There's compromise involved, of course. The more people the film reaches, the less of Waters' trademark iconoclasm can poke through. And this third incarnation has precious little to begin with. Its themes can be digested very easily and remain in the harmless realm of "I'm okay, you're okay." Typical show-business hypocrisy lurks in the corners as well, notably in the key issue of women's body images. It's all well and good to present the Rubenesque Tracy Turnblad (Nikki Blonsky) as our heroine, but her crusade to be accepted for who she is is quietly undermined by the demonstrably lighter build of the cast's other big girls -- most notably Queen Latifah, but also a cameo from Ricki Lake, who played Turnblad in the original and whose current status as a slender thirtysomething reinforces how intolerant Hollywood remains of all but the most skeletal feminine physiques.

It gets worse with the fact that the film's remaining plus-sized character -- Tracy's mother Edna -- is played by a man. Apparently, we'd rather put a guy in a dress than acknowledge that any overweight women actually exist. Yes, yes, the role has become a queer icon (Divine played it in the original, Harvey Fierstein onstage), which sidesteps that twisted equation neatly. But here it's gone to John Travolta, who -- tabloid gossip notwithstanding -- doesn't presume to represent the queer community. If you're going to take that route, why not just let a woman play Edna and be done with it? The fact that they don't further undermines the film's ostensible message of tolerance and understanding. On a more direct level, Travolta's celebrity makes it difficult to buy into the character. We never see Edna; we just see Vinnie Barbarino in a fat suit, and the disconnect makes for one of Hairspray's blissfully few missteps.

On the other hand, he still brings a few assets to the table, most of which exemplify the film far better than his shortcomings. He's having a blast, for starters, a state exuberantly shared by the entire cast. He knows how to dance too, and if nothing else, Hairspray is all about the dancing: bouncy, dazzling, and irresistibly infectious. The film's Kennedy-era Baltimore has no greater showcase for flashing one's moves than the Corny Collins Show, an all-teen television bandstand that Tracy dreams of joining someday. She's got the skills on the floor, the perky demeanor, and the crush on hunky show regular Link Larkin (Zac Efron). But none of that means anything when you're short and round, a fact that the shut-in Edna tries to hide by forbidding her daughter from trying out.

Darker prejudices taint the show as well: racial integration has not yet caught on in the upper echelons of production. They've set one day aside each month where African-Americans can dance to the music they, you know, invented, but the rest of the time, Corny Collins features nothing but Wonder Bread faces and shiny blonde 'dos. The guileless Tracy stumbles onto this ugly truth in her efforts to join the cast, which galvanizes her to push all the harder for change... much to the consternation of the show's ice queen producer (Michelle Pfieffer, uncorking some vintage Bitchy) and her Valkyrie daughter (Brittany Snow).

Luckily, this is a musical, which means that even the grim specter of racial inequality can be vanquished with a few well-placed showstoppers. Hairspray is clearly most comfortable on the level of spectacle, where it can deliver its joyful songs and flashy choreography with pretension-free zest. The sets and costumes sparkle with Waters' expected kitsch -- including the mile-high hairdos, of course, but also the camp tackiness of '60s suburbia and the squeaky-clean kookiness of the Corny Collins Show itself. Tiny bits of subversion appear within the otherwise unassuming Broadway numbers, aided by some sneaky background details (Waters himself has a blink-and-you'll-miss-him bit as a flasher) and some truly brilliant off-the-wall casting. One expects established singers like Latifah (as Corny Collins co-host Motormouth Maybelle) and Amanda Bynes (as Tracy's best friend Penny) to rock material like this, but watching Christopher Walken soft-shoe his way through the role of Tracy's father is almost worth the price of admission alone.

Hairspray further maintains its incessant bubbliness with help from David Gropman's candy-coated scenery and bright cinematography from DP Bojan Bazelli. They invest as much care and detail into their work here as any effects-driven blockbuster, guided by Shankman to maximize the charm. In the midst of it all stands Blonsky, who will never replace Lake as the one true Tracy Turnblad, but whose shining brown eyes and incandescent energy still make for an outstanding centerpiece. The film stumbles only when it abandons its sense of upbeat camp to engage in poker-faced sermonizing: a few We Shall Overcome moments simply lack the nerve to crack a smile. But if the big-budget treatment demands such pomposity, it's easily forgotten amid the sheer tonnage of pep drenching the remainder. In many ways, the recent revival in big-screen musicals has waited for a film like this: refusing to shriek diva-like for our respect, but rather winning us over like an old friend who always throws the best parties. As the summer bombast grows ever noisier, we could all stand to get back in touch with our inner fat chick. Waters, Shankman, and Hairspray have just the gal for the job.

Review published 07.19.2007.

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