Last night I saw an advance screening of Hairspray and while I went into the movie with my John Travolta shield at full power expecting the film to be a tired rehash of material I had seen before, I was pleasantly surprised, awakened by its raw energy and enthusiasm. I left the film thinking to myself that if a classic camp movie were to be retold on stage and then translated back to movie format, the newest Hairspray comes very close to the best possible outcome of that scenario. It feels like the logical creative progression to a story we've seen many times before.
The plot of the film is familiar to many: overweight girl overcomes fat bias to win a place on early 60's TV dance show and successfully battles Baltimore's segregation issues at the same time.
Many of the original film's lines are intact, including "Penny Pingleton, you are permanently, perenially, punished" (I'm sure I didn't get that exactly right) and the entire schtick about Edna Turnblad ironing ("My diet pill is wearing off!").
In fact, when I heard Travolta utter that line from the depths of his fat suit I was sure I was going to hate his portrayal, as Divine cast such a long (and large) shadow in that role. Whereas Divine uttered it as a brash warning to Tracy, Travolta's line reading is quiet, almost muttered.
So let's get to Travolta, who is certainly not the main character of the film but the one offered the most pre-show hype because of his transformation. I was trying to forget all the things he has said in press interviews for the film and just let the performance ride on its own. Travolta's Edna Turnblad is not the stern, commanding camp presence that Divine offered up, but at first a sort of strangely meek recluse who speaks in muted tones in an affected Baltimore accent.
With Divine, the breasts and the fat jiggling from the arms and the gaudy make-up was really in your face and with Travolta it's as if a fat suit has swallowed the Scientologist and all that remains of the actor himself are those familiar beady eyes staring out from a sea of plump, white seamless dough.
Travolta grows on you however, and his character really comes into her own when Edna dances, putting all that fake flesh into motion. It's then that the audience erupts into laughter, and the moment didn't happen nearly often enough. Edna Turnblad's voice is also strangely inconsistent, veering from the affected Baltimore accent back to Travolta's voice, in and out of character, again and again. I never forgot that it was John Travolta inside that fat suit, but his portrayal did win me over as the movie went on.
Also, gone is the seedy Baltimore that John Waters gave us, replaced by a freshly-rinsed happy-go-lucky Hollywood musical version. Waters' dark, twisted camp sensibilities have vanished, though his presence is still felt (once quite literally). The city here is crisp and colorful while Waters' Baltimore has always been dusted in a shadowy layer of thrift store grunge.
It's obvious that director Adam Shankman began his career in Hollywood as a choreographer, for the movie moves along at a dancer's pace. My boyfriend noted that he thought that the performances were not very well directed but the movement and pace of the story more than made up for it at the end.
Hairspray's diverse cast is its best asset.
"Discovery" Nikki Blonsky (Tracy Turnblad), who came, literally, from behind a counter at a Cold Stone Creamery and was plucked for the role from open casting auditions, has made herself a name to be reckoned with, even though her performance does not stray much from the character that Ricki Lake originated way back when.
Christopher Walken (Wilbur Turnblad) gives a quiet, endearing performance as Tracy's father and gag joke/novelty shop owner. Michelle Pfeiffer and Brittany Snow (Velma and Amber von Tussle) provide cartoonish, villainous foils to the film's themes of tolerance and integration. And James Marsden and Zac Efron twinkle as the squeaky clean leading men.
Queen Latifah is a commanding presence as Motormouth Maybelle. The movie actually strays from its two-dimensional cartoonlike box for a moment and reaches another, more emotional place altogether when she takes to the streets in a protest for integration, singing the gospel-tinged track "I Know Where I've Been".
And I won't soon forget Allison Janney as the uptight Christian bigot mom shouting "devil child" as she tosses holy water at her daughter Penny Pingleton, whom she's imprisoned in her bedroom. Seaweed (Elijah Kelley) is a standout and gives perhaps the best vocal performance of the film as Penny's (Amanda Bynes) "checkerboard" love interest. Bynes is perfect as the blinking airhead Penny. And Jerry Stiller is a great bonus as plus-size dressmaker Mr. Pinky.
The only real disappointment in the cast, because she didn't live up to the hype that the script built for her, was Little Inez (Taylor Parks), whose turn as Corny Collins' new, young dancing discovery wasn't dazzling enough to fill the plot that had been constructed.
And we're also treated to a few cameos, which I'll leave as a surprise.
Overall, I'd recommend Hairspray. It's an optimistic piece of filmmaking and a worthy summer diversion. I think it's particularly difficult to come at a piece of well-loved material and try to give it a fresh perspective. And they've succeeded here.
Hairspray hits theaters on July 20th.
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Drag Not Really a Drag for Travolta in Hairspray [tr]
Trick or Treat: More John Travolta as Edna Turnblad [tr]
John Travolta's New Look [tr]