You can’t say you’ve paid your film-critic dues these days until you’ve reviewed a man-in-a-female-fat-suit movie. Don’t get me wrong — Eddie Murphy, Tyler Perry and Martin Lawrence were all mercifully absent. It could have been so, so, so much worse is the refrain that eventually formed itself into some kind of melody in my brain as I watched Hairspray, the twice-removed cousin of John Waters’ 1988 camp classic. I forced myself optimistic, in fact, by pointing out to my inner bitchmudgeon that, at the very least, John Travolta’s piggy-eyed smugness was concealed from view behind a hundred pounds of synthetic flab — it’s those small kindnesses that count, really, wouldn’t you say? You can take me to task all you want for focusing on either Travolta or the fat suit; stuff like this needs to be worked out of my system. It’s just — John Travolta, people. This is the man who made even Pulp Fiction unwatchable for me and, as a Tarantino fan, it sticks in my craw. It doesn’t matter that Adam Shankman’s Hairspray retread is getting positive reviews elsewhere, or that John Waters was involved in the remake as both producer and pervy trenchcoat flasher (how perfectly Waters-ish!). It was still Travolta I was subjected to. In a musical. Camping it up.
As it turns out, neither the musical nor Travolta was onerous enough to kill me outright (the note with the name of my next of kin pinned to my shirt turned out to be unnecessary, as was the mop I’d toted along to scour up the regurgitated popcorn buds I fully expected to spew). In fact, there was only minimal seat-squirmage on my part, and I suspect fans of happy-happy-fun-world Broadway productions will be sufficiently suffonsified by Hairspray. The dancing is slick and energetic, the costumes are candy-coated, and Michelle Pfeiffer is screen-goddess radiant. Hairspray has the Broadway musical formula down, and the players are game to give it their all. Nikki Blonsky, stepping into Ricki Lake’s shoes as Tracy Turnblad, lives up to the role but doesn’t bring anything new to it. And while Travolta is no Divine, he does manage a performance quite a bit more dialed-down than I’d been expecting. Honestly, it’s hard for me to admit this. I was all set to parrot Pandagon’s excoriation of Travolta for mocking womanhood rather than merely being a woman (which Divine managed to transmit in the original version). While I still think Divine’s Edna Turnblad is more three-dimensional, Travolta was (at least until film’s end) surprisingly subtle and sweet — for a smarmy homophobe poured into a hundred pounds of faux femme, anyway.
Waters’ story about a chubby misfit who breaks onto the beautiful-people soundstage and kills segregation with kindness is mostly intact (although the second half of the film switches up several of the original film’s plot points). Tracy Turnblad and her best friend, Penny Pingleton (Amanda Bynes), habitually rush home from school to catch their favorite teen do-wop/dance program, the Corny Collins show. Tracy, apparently, can really dance, but the “thin” barrier, like the race barrier, prevents the overweight and the non-white from fully participating in the fun in 1960’s Baltimore. Despite the show’s sympathetic host (played by James Marsden), its producers are bent on “steering viewers in the white direction” and holding tight to 1950s American values. But Tracy’s enthusiasm wins her a spot on the show, a legion of fans, a dress-shop endorsement, and the admiration of the show’s staple heartthrob, Link Larkin (Zac Efron). Her on-camera presence also turns out to be a political catalyst that helps to usher in integration and, in the case of this version (which owes more to the Broadway production than to Waters’ original), inspires an alarming number of song-and-dance routines — some of which are, admittedly, halfway charming.
The original Hairspray found eternal life thanks to its unusual cast (Sonny Bono, Debbie Harry, Jerry Stiller, Pia Zadora), its sweet, if simplistic, discourse on racial politics and difference, and better do-wop like Lesley Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me.” It starts out a little weak but slowly wins you over despite its naivety and the fact that Tracy really doesn’t dance any better than any of the other kids on the soundstage (a curiosity that surfaces in the remake as well). There’s something genuine at the core of Waters’ freak-parade — it’s one of his least provocative films, so designed to prevent its subcultural elements from upstaging the film’s gentle message about acceptance. Shankman’s Hairspray, conversely, suffers from the contrast effect — not against the original version, so much, but within its own structure. Its very effort and proportion reveal just how tinny its message really is, and just how unrealistically tidy the struggle for integration is presented. Except for two or three characters, everyone appears to really really just want folks to get along — to which I say, if only. The politics in Waters’ version were never penetrating, either, but the understated approach to the film made the substance-vacuum seem less yawning. There, the political content felt more like a framework for all the campy delights Waters trotted out. The in-your-faceness of Shankman’s more corporate version turns the fragile backbone of the commentary to jelly. Now we really notice that, in Hairspray’s world, racism only seems to exist as an institution, not as a widespread character flaw; most everyone’s just so jim-dandy ready to put the fat and the dark on a lime-lit pedestal because (shucks) people are just so great and accepting when those mean old rules get lifted.
Apart from that (which probably won’t be much of an issue for its core demographic), the new Hairspray gives as much as it takes. On the one hand, the casting recommends itself to fans of Christopher Walken, Allison Janney and Jerry Stiller (who returns in the role, this time, of Mr. Pinky, owner of the Hefty Hideaway dress shop). Seaweed (Elijah Kelley) is, as in the original version, the most magnetic character onscreen; just like Clayton Prince, Kelley is a fine-lovely specimen of lean male youth who can dance like a whip and steal his scenes without trying. On the other hand, Queen Latifah struggles to live up to the imprint left by Ruth Brown, who incarnated Motormouth Maybelle in Waters’ film. Amanda Bynes’ skin is laughably orange (a peculiar sight when dialogue and song lyrics keep referring to her lily-whiteness as one half of an interracial love-affair). Hairspray the Second is a little too in love with itself for my taste; I kept waiting to buy into it and couldn’t quite get there. But still, as a rabid disdainer of remakes, Travolta and musicals, I could still spot some good through my tears of distress. Which probably means that Hairspray’s got something going for it, if you have a cast-iron show-tunes tummy and a love of vacuous glee. I’m not built to commit to this kind of film, but it’s got all the potential to be a dream-date for those who appreciate the genre. — Ranylt Richildis
(Originally published on Pajiba.com on July 21, 2007.)