John Travolta, Michelle Pfeiffer, Queen Latifah, Christopher
Walken, Amanda Bynes, James Marsden, Brittany Snow, Nicole Blonsky,
Zac Efron, Allison Janney
Director: Adam Shankman
As I’m coming home from the screening of “Hairspray” and forming this review in my head, my mind was saying this was a three-and-a-half-star movie. Then I got home, checked my notes, and discovered that I gave last year’s ‘60s R&B-flavored musical “Dreamgirls” four stars. I wish I could retroactively knock that rating down half a star, because “Hairspray,” warts and all – and it has growths of Marc Anthony proportions – is waaaaay more entertaining than “Dreamgirls.” For starters, it has a sense of humor, but more importantly, it has an energy that “Dreamgirls” sorely lacks, not to mention the common sense to not drag out for two and a half hours. For you “Hairspray” musical devotees, this means that some of your favorite songs missed the cut. (My favorite song didn’t appear until the credits.) But for the sake of pacing, it was the right call. Who would have thought that Adam Shankman, the man responsible for some of the worst movies in recent memory (more on that later), would show such good judgment over, well, anything?
The year is 1960, and all Baltimore resident Tracy Turnblad (Nikki Blonsky) wants to do is be a dancer on “The Corny Collins Show,” her favorite TV program. Tracy’s large-Marge mother Edna (John Travolta), who hasn’t left the house in nine years, is afraid of her short, full-figured daughter being embarrassed, but her father Wilbur (Christopher Walken) tells her to go for it, as does her best friend Penny (Amanda Bynes). But first, she has to get past the show’s producer Velma Von Tussle (Michelle Pfeiffer), the snotty former Miss Baltimore Crabs whose daughter Amber (Brittany Snow) is not only a “Corny” cast member but is dating the show’s star hunk Link (Zac Efron), the boy of Tracy’s dreams. Tracy’s love of dance and music soon brings her into the underworld of black R&B – Corny’s show is an all-white affair, save for one Negro Day per month – and it is here that she gets a rude awakening about what it’s truly like to be discriminated against.
Any fan of John Waters’ 1988 original that is not familiar with the Broadway adaptation will surely cry foul at the relatively light-hearted tone the musical version takes towards the racial-issues aspect of the plot, but that is a matter of necessity. After all, this movie has no intention of being another “Dreamgirls,” not with Marc Shaiman, the man who helped Trey Park assemble the book for “South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut,” writing the lyrics. Besides, while the original movie had its serious moments, it was more about the funny than delivering The Big Message, and these five words sum it up best: “Let’s get naked and smoke.”
On the other hand, any fan of the musical surely knows what I’m about to say next, which is that John Travolta, star power and song-and-dance talents aside, is woefully miscast as Edna Turnblad. Surely New Line didn’t need his commitment to get this movie green-lighted, did they? If not, then shame on them for not getting Harvey Fierstein, or even Fierstein’s Broadway replacement Michael McKean, to reprise the role of Edna. Yes, everyone loves to see Travolta dance, even, it appears, if it means that he has to do so wearing a fat suit and high heels (the audience went nuts whenever he strutted his stuff). But overall, Travolta was a far greater liability than an asset. Walken, on the other hand, had me and my colleagues in stitches. He wasn’t just Walken: he was Walken doing an impression of Walken, which is exactly what the movie needed. In fact, pretty much everyone in “Hairspray” hits their marks, with the exception of Bynes, who certainly looks the part of Penny but can’t act the part to save her life. Travolta and Bynes aside, this movie is the most impeccably cast movie since your favorite “Harry Potter” movie. Come on, does casting get any better than Brittany Snow as the lily-white Amber Von Tussle? Her last name is Snow, for crying out loud.So what if it doesn’t have hypno-therapists and dope-smoking beatniks? “Hairspray” is fun in a way that most movie musicals dare to dream, and it came from the man who was in the director’s chair of (brace yourselves) “The Wedding Planner,” “Bringing Down the House,” “The Pacifier,” and “ Cheaper by the Dozen 2.” Which begs the question: if Adam Shankman was always capable of making a movie like this, why on earth didn’t he? “Hairspray” is a good first step towards redemption, but he needs to make three or four more movies this good in order to break even.