"Four stars (R)
The biggest complaint I have about Hairspray, the delightfully goofy, good-natured musical based on the Broadway hit that was based on the 1988 John Waters film, is that it lacks the subtlety of the original movie.
Now there’s a statement I never dreamed I would commit to paper.
I’ll elaborate on that, but I want to address the new film before talking about the original one. Hairspray is a treat, the most pleasant surprise of the summer. The prospect of a musical set in the early ’60s with John Travolta in a fat suit playing a woman did not leave me tingling with anticipation, but damned if they didn’t pull it off. The spirit is buoyant, the songs are just fine and Travolta is charming as a fretful mother whose shame over her weight has left her a prisoner in her own house.
Oh my, that sounded serious. Here’s the thing: Hairspray addresses serious issues, most notably racial segregation, but does so with a blissfully light touch — except for one song that is a little too noble. Luckily, giddiness prevails and the borderline preachy moment doesn’t become a buzz kill.
The story: Baltimore teen Tracy Turnblad (Nikki Blonsky) and her best friend Penny Pingleton (Amanda Bynes) live for the local TV dance party, an American Bandstand clone called The Corny Collins Show, with a toothy host (James Marsden) and a gaggle of wholesome teen dancers. Most prominent among them is Amber Von Tussle (Brittany Snow), a blond brat enabled by her bullying mother Velma (Michelle Pfeiffer), who is the manager of the TV station.
Tracy dreams of becoming one of the regulars, but her preoccupation with the show and dreamboat dancer Linc (Zak Efron) land her in detention, which turns out to be a blast. Many of the kids there appear on the dance show’s once-a-month “Negro Day,” hosted by record-shop owner Motormouth Maybelle (Queen Latifah). Tracy, who wishes that “every day was Negro Day,” becomes friends with Maybelle’s son, Seaweed (Elijah Kelly), who teaches her some cool dance moves that aid in her quest for glory. Tracy’s mother Edna (Travolta) initially disapproves, but soon comes around, thanks in part to the urgings of her devoted husband, joke store owner Wilbur (Christopher Walken).
John Waters’ original film starred Ricki Lake as Tracy and iconic drag queen Divine as Edna (look for cameo appearances by Waters, Lake and Jerry Stiller). In honor of its source, the Broadway version always cast men in the role of Edna, which explains why Travolta is decked out in a female fat suit. Try to look past his appearance and his celebrity and check out his actual performance; he does a nice job presenting Edna as a delicate girl turned fearful, but devoted wife and mother. The rest of the adults, including Allison Janney as Penny’s nutty mother, are also effective, though Michelle Pfeiffer is the weakest link in the chain. But the show belongs to the kids, most notably Elijah Kelly as Seaweed and especially the effervescent Nikki Blonsky as Tracy.
If you like Hairspray, check out John Waters’ original non-musical version. The look is even more enjoyably tacky, the actors are even more of a hoot and, while addressing alienation, bigotry and segregation, Waters is able to successfully maintain a trashy, fizzy tone without any tub thumbing. The new Hairspray is good. The old one is even better.