July 20th, 2007
When John Waters assembled his first mainstream feature with 1988's "Hairspray," the world took notice.
Setting aside the extremities of his Dreamland motley crew for a brief moment while he romanticized the dance fever of his youth, the film was not only the largest hit for the wily filmmaker (a monster on home video), but contained a timeless selection of untamed teen personalities and honeyed reflection. It worked because it had heart and a whole heap of soul. So why in the hell do we need to ruin that with this truckload of Broadway gibberish?
A big girl with big dreams of stardom in Baltimore, 1962, Tracy Turnblad (Nikki Blonsky) has found her way onto the set of the local dance program, the “Corny Collins Show.” Becoming an instant star, Tracy looks to integrate the show, much to the objection of TV princess Amber von Tussle (Brittany Snow) and her racist mother, Velma (Michelle Pfeiffer, lacking only a hood and a burning cross). Turning the town upside down with her antics, Tracy soon raises the concern of her mother, Edna (John Travolta), earns the respect the black population (Queen Latifah, Elijah Kelley), and wins the heart of hunk Link Larkin (Zac Efron).
The “Hairspray” world under the watch of Waters was a three-dimensional experience, taking in Baltimore’s teenager past with an eye towards comedy, cockeyed nostalgia, and a little of the so-called innocence of the era. While Waters utilized the topic of integration as his only stab at a plot, the film was better served as a snapshot of fad dances and the immediacy of local television stardom.
“Hairspray” the musical is a boisterous, aggressive demon that wants attention. No, it demands attention, and in all the worst ways. It’s a shrill experience that presents itself as a valentine to Waters’s creation, but instead stomps all over it with a heaping serving of miserable execution and ghastly ideas for entertainment.
It feels wrong to cringe while watching the film version of the 2002 Tony-Award-winning musical. It’s a colorful production that emphasizes big moments, big laughs, and big hair. End the film there, and everything would be peachy. However, director Adam Shankman is under strict orders to make this film play to the last row of the movie theater, rendering what was once a small cult delight into a blowhard movie for mass consumption.
Perhaps if you have some familiarity with the original stage version, the leap to the screen won’t be quite so jarring. This is my first taste of “Hairspray” outside of Waters, and while I’m thrilled he’ll finally received a paycheck worth his talents for signing off on this feature, it doesn’t hold a candle to the 1988 film. While many nuances and period details have been ignored in the interest of turning the story into a cartoon, there’s one alteration that really chaps me: the lack of dance.
Sure, the actors bounce around the bedazzled frame, performing their hearts out to the ho-hum songs, but it’s bland, overly choreographed hoofing. Waters’s film took the rainbow of themed dances seriously, using the steps to unify his characters and place a timestamp on the film. All that has been whittled out of the new “Hairspray.” What’s left are gaudy production numbers that don’t know when to quit and a new, rabid focus on cloying race issues Disneyfied for your enjoyment.
Shankman does make an effort to sneak some of the subversive Waters-like humor into the film, and the performances, while at times perfectly grating, are lively enough to make you ignore the buffoonish lyrics (“the blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice”). Lead Nikki Blonsky has the right puckish spirit as Tracy, and while she’s eventually left behind by the sheer mass of artifice, she opens the film with two of the more appealing bubble gum numbers, making one wish the film didn’t completely forget about her around act three.
John Travolta is an entirely different beast altogether. Stepping into the hallowed shoes of Divine, Travolta is trapped inside a spooky fat suit for his portrayal of Tracy’s sequestered mother. How this body suit snuck through inspections to make it to the screen is a mystery for the ages; on the actor, Edna resembles hideously deformed ghost, or the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man’s elder sister, and it will haunt your every waking minute. Those little beady eyes! That huge, white face!
All of Travolta’s facial quirks are smoothed out by this horrific special effect, forcing him to mug like Fat Bastard’s stunt double just to register an emotion onscreen. It’s a depressing development because his efforts are constantly in vain, no matter the amount of dance fever the actor hustles up, and it’s disappointing that in 2007, we can still find appalling make-up work in an industry that is constantly inventing new ways to cover the seams.
If I sound like the musical Grinch, so be it. “Hairspray” rubbed me the wrong way and should’ve remained on the stage, where the candy-coated relentless joviality of the creation could be digested from a safe distance. Smashed up into the viewer’s face on the screen, the whole affair becomes toxic before the opening titles have finished. Upon further inspection, not only can I stop the beat, but I would like to turn this stopping of beats into a national movement. Do yourself a favor and just revisit the original Waters film. Your senses will thank you in the morning.
My rating: D+