Roots Damage 

Hairspray—the movie musical of the musical of the movie—is nowhere near (D)ivine

Hairspray the movie musical has been conceived and executed as a faithful record of the stage version. But that’s all it is—a recording.
Did John Waters sell out? Or did our increasingly metrosexual age merely render him irrelevant? Certainly long before Hairspray took up residence on the Great White Way in 2002, Waters had abdicated his throne as America’s elder statesman of underground smut in favor of a more lucrative career as a neutered mainstream pop-culture icon, readily available for awards-show emcee gigs and sitcom guest appearances. Yet somehow Hairspray on Broadway seemed to seal the deal, with its further taming of Waters’ 1988 movie and its gently satiric tale of Tracy Turnblad, a plus-sized Baltimore teen who becomes an unlikely instigator of integration on an American Bandstand-like TV show at the end of the Jim Crow era. Like Mel Brooks before him, Waters was fully gentrified now and getting rich as a result—a long way from shit-eating to a shit-eating grin.

In truth, the stage version of Hairspray was easily the best of the recent Broadway behemoths, even if it buried Waters’ skewering of WASP panic in the face of black progress beneath thick layers of tongue-in-cheek nostalgia. You could easily walk away from the musical Hairspray thinking that racial segregation in the early ’60s wasn’t anything a little doo-wop couldn’t cure, but the show was mercifully absent the labored slapstick of The Producers and the ponderous self-seriousness of Wicked. More importantly, the songs were pretty darn good, cleverly styled by composer-lyricist Marc Shaiman and co-lyricist Scott Wittman after the Top 40 hits of the era. And unlike the songs from Dreamgirls—which charts roughly the same period in American music history from the other side of the race divide—Shaiman and Wittman’s featured an abundance of good old-fashioned soul.

Hairspray the movie musical has been conceived and executed as a faithful record of the stage version. But that’s all it is—a recording. Registering somewhere between Susan Stroman (who made the abominable 2005 film version of The Producers) and Bob Fosse on the scale of choreographers turned directors, Adam Shankman shows a lot of know-how when it comes to the placement and movement of human bodies, but considerably less when the object at hand is a movie camera.

No, Shankman doesn’t slice-and-dice his musical numbers into MTV oblivion (à la Chicago). But it’s evident right from the opening number, “Good Morning Baltimore”—a spirited parody of introductory tunes like “The Trolley Song” from Meet Me in St. Louis, in which Tracy (played here by perky newcomer Nikki Blonsky) rolls out of bed and into a pastel universe of winos, streakers and sewer rats—that the movie is visually flat: not pasty and garish in the Waters signature style, but merely serviceable and competent in the worst tradition of Hollywood “professionalism.” Shankman has gotten Hairspray on the screen, all right, but he hasn’t rethought the material in cinematic terms (the way, for example, that Frank Oz did when adapting the similarly stylized Little Shop of Horrors). The result is an odd hybrid that lacks both the rambunctious energy of a live performance and the expressionistic pull of a great movie musical.

That leaves the film to survive on its auditory pleasures and the novelty of its stunt casting—most notably John Travolta as Tracy’s plus-plus-sized mom, Edna, a role originated by longtime Waters muse Divine and subsequently inhabited onstage by queer-culture doyennes such as Harvey Fierstein and Bruce Vilanch. The most dandyish of ostensibly straight contemporary screen performers, Travolta seems like sound casting. Yet given this primo opportunity to get his femme thing on, he’s oddly tamped-down in a part that calls for the grandiose. (I, for one, spent most of the movie trying to locate the inspiration for Travolta’s slurry, monotonous vocal inflection, until I pinpointed it as a misbegotten hybrid of Ed Sullivan and Homer Simpson.) On the opposite scale, as the vampish villainess Velma Von Tussle, Michelle Pfeiffer plays all her scenes with such shrill rich-bitch intensity that suddenly her lengthy screen hiatus (since 2002’s White Oleander) doesn’t seem to have been long enough.

Hairspray is far from an abject failure, but its only flashes of inspiration exist on the periphery—chiefly in Queen Latifah’s joyous performance as Motormouth Maybelle, hostess of the monthly “Negro Day” on the film’s Bandstand simulacrum, The Corny Collins Show; in Christopher Walken, too little seen as Tracy’s gadget-man dad, doing some elegant soft-shoe to the Comden-and-Green-style ditty “Timeless to Me”; and in Corny Collins himself, James Marsden, who’s so adept at playing period roles (here and in The Notebook) that you dread the thought of ever seeing him in another comic-book adaptation. Though much of the publicity is bound to focus on tween pinup-du-jour Zac Efron, who plays resident Collins heartthrob Link Larkin, it’s Marsden who steals the show, sporting enough Brylcreem to deflect nuclear radiation and flashing a Pepsodent smile that could guide ships through a raging monsoon. Whenever he twinkles his baby blues and belts out in a surprisingly strong singing voice, he seems the epitome of virginal 1950s innocence—to which Hairspray is, ultimately, a cockeyed adieu.

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