This isn't John Waters' Hairspray. But it turns out that's okay with us.
I went into Hairspray a skeptic. No, that's not exactly right. I went into Hairspray angry is more like it. I remember watching the original Hairspray by John Waters when I was in high school--and while this isn't exactly my first gig out of college, it's not as though high school was that long ago, either. The truth is, Waters' original version of Hairspray was done in 1988--and to misappropriate some Hamlet, you should let the corpse cool a little more before you move on.
The thing is, though, that this Hairspray isn't exactly a remake of Waters' wonderfully subversive film of not that long ago. This Hairspray is a film adaptation of the Broadway musical of Hairspray, which was, of course, inspired by the Waters version. So it's a smidge different.
The story is fundamentally the same--big-hearted, big-haired, and just plain old big Tracy Turnblad still hopes against hope that she can get a spot on the toast of 1960's teen Baltimore, The Corny Collins musical variety show, despite her rather plump stature. The blonde, beautiful Von Tussles still try to keep her from living her dream. And she still teaches the world a little something about integration along the way.
The difference is that this Hairspray is without that very subversiveness--so fundamental to Waters' style--that made the original film version so special. Not to say that Hairspray is entirely without tongue-in-cheek humor; in fact, it's definitely still there in the script. It just gets a little lost in the tone, which is much more about big, shiny, stage-y musical productions than about really bringing out the quirk and message underneath.
Nonetheless, Hairspray did its part to win me over. Cameos by Waters himself, as well as several of the original cast (Ricki Lake, Jerry Stiller, etc.) did their part to subdue the naysayer in me (if they can endorse it, who am I to be such a grinch)? And it certainly is the perfect candidate for the current movie musical craze.
Much has been made of newcomer Nikki Blonsky's casting as Tracy (the tale of her working in an ice cream parlor at the time she was cast is the sort of which Hollywood dreams are made), and there is no question she is ideal for the part. She's cute, bright, enthusiastic, and most importantly she's got the qualities most essential Tracy--she's an overweight girl who can dance and sing. But although her voice impressed even cynical me (that girl can really belt), I nonetheless found her a delivery a little stage-y--a little more musical theater than movie musical--and that put me off just a bit.
The other big to-do about Hairspray is that John Travolta plays Edna Turnblad--Tracy's hefty, agoraphobic, laundry mistress mother. Edna Turnblad is traditionally a drag part (it was originated by drag queen Divine in Waters' version), but Travolta elected to do it in female prosthetics instead. This decision was another part of the movie about which I had my doubts, but I will confess that Travolta totally turned me around. A mountain of a woman in his female fat suit, he commits 150% to the role, nailing Edna's working class Baltimore accent to the wall, and clearly adoring every last second of it--so much so that you really can believe him as her mother. Weird, but true.
Director Adam Shankman (The Wedding Planner, Bringing Down the House) was clearly the man for the job as he has choreographed virtually everything there's been to choreograph in Hollywood. And the supporting cast all delivers--particularly the lovely Michelle Pfeiffer as the bad-to-the-bone Velma Von Tussle. Pfeiffer is an actress I love never so much as when she is playing a real character role (e.g., Catwoman) because she can really go all out with them in a way few others can, and Velma is a similar such circumstance.
Was Hairspray perfect? No. I am still more a sucker for the snide than the squeaky clean, and I thought it ran a little long. But my toes still tapped, and the messages are even good ones--sounds like good entertainment to me.