Mark Reviews Movies

HAIRSPRAY (2007)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Adam Shankman

Cast: Nikki Blonsky, John Travolta, Amanda Bynes, Christopher Walken, Zac Efron, Elijah Kelley, Queen Latifah, Michelle Pfeiffer, Brittany Snow, James Marsden, Allison Janney

MPAA Rating: PG  (for language, some suggestive content and momentary teen smoking)

Running Time: 1:57

Release Date: 7/20/07


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Review by Mark Dujsik

I suppose this whole movie-to-Broadway-musical fad is fine, as long as when the shows head back to the screen they are at least as lively as Hairspray. The 1988 John Waters' film was adapted to a 2002 Broadway musical that won eight Tony Awards, is still running, and is now a film once again. The goofy nostalgia and occasionally ingenious satire of Waters' version has been replaced by a broader sense of humor and the period and high-energy song and dance numbers. That's neither positive nor negative; they're just quite different animals. What the musical film has in spades, which the original strangely didn't, is energy. This interpretation of Hairspray almost seems an unstoppable force of good-natured, thinly-veiled ribaldry and old-fashioned movie musical fun, or at least it is until the film moves away from its central story and characters, instead attempting to flesh out its supporting or periphery characters and tossing in some unnecessary side conflicts and a dramatic shift in tone. The film slows down quite a bit in these sections, but it makes a rousing comeback in its final number, a veritable smorgasbord of song, dance, social message, slapstick, and, of course, styling products.

Baltimore, 1962. A very CG helicopter shot comes down upon the poor, residential part of town, where Tracy Turnblad (Nikki Blonsky) lies in bed, her hips shaking to a beat only she can hear, and awakes to sing good morning to the city she loves. The opening song sets the tone immediately, as she says hello to the flasher on the street (Waters in a cameo), a drunk at the bar, and waves down a garbage truck for a ride to school (the driver's initial reaction is priceless). School's a drag, and she taps down the seconds until she and her friend Penny Pingleton (Amanda Bynes) can run home and watch "The Corny Collins Show," an show in the "American Bandstand" style that features the popular music of the day and dancing kids called "The Nicest Kids in Town." As it turns out, there's an opening for a dancer, and even though Tracy's mother Edna (John Travolta) worries about her daughter's ego, her father Wilbur (Christopher Walken) thinks she should go for it. The initial audition goes horribly wrong, but when Link Larkin (Zac Efron), Tracy's crush and one of the show's dancers, sees her moves in school, he advises her to try again.

The results, if you've seen the original or the Broadway show, should be obvious. Tracy knocks 'em dead at the second impromptu audition and joins the show.  Director/choreographer Adam Shankman, whose previous work would never suggest such a thing, does right by the traditional stage-to-screen staging and film, keeping the camera at a distance, and editor Michael Tronick makes sure we have the time to appreciate the dancing on display. That's in the obviously stagy numbers, like anything on the show, the auditions, and a sequence where most of Tracy's neighborhood breaks out into dance to celebrate Edna's newfound confidence. Then there are ones like the opening number, which joyously moves around town throwing in sight gags, and one in which Tracy imagines her entire life with Link after he accidentally bumps into her. Nikki Blonsky, in her film debut, is a performing dynamo with the bliss of a newcomer but the ease of a seasoned professional, and she gets at least three show-stopping numbers in by the time the film's over. The rest of the cast, especially Christopher Walken as Tracy's aloof dad, James Marsden as the host with a winning smile and a social conscience, Queen Latifah as the host of "Negro Day" Motormouth Maybelle, and Michelle Pfeiffer as stage-mom WASP Velma Von Tussle, is spot on as well.

The stunt casting of John Travolta as Edna, though, is problematic, but he does his best with an awkward role. The music by Marc Shaiman capture the period stylishly, and the lyrics by Shaiman and Scott Wittman have an added comic edge. The tunes are undeniably catchy, and Shankman's choreography is chipper to go along. The whole production seems ready to burst, but then the script's problems kick in. Slowly, instead of focusing on Tracy and her rise from local television star to society-changer, we get numbers and subplots following everyone else. Wilbur and Edna's marriage is forcibly put on the rocks by Velma, Link discovers his conscience, and Penny falls for Maybelle's son Seaweed (Elijah Kelley). The air is let out of the film for a while, and once Tracy and Maybelle try to fulfill Tracy's wish that "every day were 'Negro Day,'" the tone switches from cheery to unnecessarily, safely solemn  Latifah sings her protest song with passion, but the passion is drained from the film with a bland sequence following the march on the TV station. Still, that final number brings the joy back with force, heightened by Shaiman and Wittman's acrobatic lyrics.

There's no way any of the numbers and subplots would have been cut, but had Hairspray smoothed out its narrative flow, excising some of the post-intermission attempts at fleshing out the superfluous material, it would have been a remarkably boisterous musical. As it is, the film achieves that status for a surprising amount of time and manages to resume it after the dull spots, and it's a load of fun.

Copyright 2007 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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