"Ah'm tryin' to ahrn in here!"
HAIRSPRAY is the best of the recent spate of musicals based on Broadway shows. That may not sound like the highest praise, but trust me, it is. HAIRSPRAY eschews, mostly, the atrocious Cuisinart editing and fatal miscasting that have characterized such recent horrors as CHICAGO, DREAMGIRLS, RENT and THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA.
So here's the good news: the movie has moments of real infectious fun. The story centers on Tracy Turnblad, a young girl in Baltimore in 1962, who is a rabid fan of the local TV program, The Corny Collins Show, a sort of Baltimore Bandstand. She manages to overcome prejudices based on her weight and low/no class origins, and winds up one of the dancing teen regulars on the show. Tracy is soon flirting with the hottest boy on the show, the tasty Linc, and lobbying to have the show's monthly Negro Day turned into outright integration, a position that puts her election as Miss Hairspray of 1962 in jeopardy.
The plot largely downplays the realities of the civil rights struggle as being the kind of thing that can be dealt with successfully by a good beat that can be danced to, and I feel kind of churlish even bringing the matter up. The real subject of HAIRSPRAY is the pure joy of music and dancing and stopping to sing a big song. There's a lot of good fun in the film, which includes most of the Broadway score intact, and a really catchy score it is. And for a change, the cast is up to it, with one latex-covered big-starred exception. Nikki Blonsky makes the most of her film debut, handling the singing and dancing with great aplomb. Michelle Pfeiffer is convincingly wicked as the monstrous station manager whose daughter is Tracy's main competition, and she even succeeds in making her signature song, "Miss Baltimore Crabs," one of the film's highlights. James Marsden, as Corny Collins, takes his million dollar smile and amps it up to a real vision of TV hyper-eagerness, one of the funniest running jokes in the film. Allison Janney can't be on screen for more than 5 minutes, but gets more laughs per moment than anyone else.
There are a lot of changes from the original John Waters film and the Broadway show, many of them for the better. The story feels a bit tighter and better organized, but I miss the sense of wild triumph that characterized the Waters film and the show on Broadway. The sexual charge is also missing: where Rikki Lake in the original and Marisa Jaret Winokur on Broadway made no secret of their intense physical desire for Linc, there's an odd chastity to the film's Tracy and Linc. They don't even really kiss until their big final embrace. The only convincing sexual charge in the film comes between a young black man named Seaweed and his white girlfriend, the "permanently punished" Penny Pingleton.
Okay, I'll just cut to the chase. I thought Travolta SUCKED, except for one big cool moment he has at the very end which seems to be cool enough to make everyone ignore how just plain DREADFUL he has been up till then. As Tracy's mother Edna, Travolta is almost but not quite entirely unrecognizable beneath what has to be the worst prosthetic makeup job in the history of prosthetic makeup. He also uses a really overdone accent that seems to be the way that some people in Baltimore might actually speak or might have spoken, but it just feels fake and overdone, like the makeup. I was reminded of Wallace Beery in GRAND HOTEL, who is the only person, in a film populated with German characters, to bother putting on a German accent.
There's more, alas. The screenwriter and director have updated the story to make Edna something of an agoraphobic with severe body-image issues, hammering these points home very clearly in a way that makes Edna more of an object of pity than anything else, and it just brings the story to a halt. They've also re-arranged the story so that Edna's rejuvenation doesn't really happen until the end of the story, where the show made it clear that Edna's rescue is complete purely by getting that fabulous makeover in the "Welcome To The Sixties" number, about a third of the way through the show.
I don't want to dwell to completely on Travolta, but he is a huge distraction. If they'd only been able to get a star of similar bankability who hadn't felt it necessary to wear hideously disfiguring makeup and adopt an outlandish accent, the film would have been nearly perfect.