Thursday, June 28, 2007

"Hairspray" -- * * *

To get this right out of the way, I’m a “Hairspray” fan. I adore the original John Waters film, and the stage adaptation of it is one of the few full-on “fluff” musicals that I genuinely love. So this review is from the point of view of someone who’s familiar and fond of the source material, so view it with a grain of salt if you must.

My reaction to the announcement of a star-studded “Hairspray” movie musical wasn’t akin to my nervous dread about Tim Burton’s “Sweeney Todd,” and with good reason. “Sweeney” is a musical masterpiece, a haunting piece of art that could potentially be desecrated and sabotaged if done incorrectly. “Hairspray,” on the other hand, is a big, silly, fun time at the theatre that preaches tolerance for both fatties and negroes alike. Basically, it’s a big ball of happy with wonderful music and a nice message to boot. So, I was totally fine with the idea of Hollywood doing a big-ole celebrity pageant version of it, even if someone as talentless as Adam Shankman was assigned to direct.

Do I think this could have been a much better movie in every respect had it been equipped with a director who had any skill besides choreographing? Yes. Do I think it would have benefited from having the most appropriate actors for the parts cast, rather than the biggest names possible? Yes. Do I want to watch it again right now? Yes.

While not as good as it really should be, “Hairspray” is a ton of fun, but that was never really in question. The source materials, both the original film and the show, are so incredibly fun, good-natured and entertaining that it would be virtually impossible to completely fuck them up. Shankman makes some mistakes along the way, notably some misguided casting, but audiences are going to eat this thing up, and it’s certainly a fun night at the movies. So, yes, good news, it’s not a “Producers”-esque disappointment, but it’s certainly worth noting that virtually all the movie’s strengths should be credited to the creators of the stage musical, not the filmmakers.

For those who don’t know, “Hairspray” centers on Tracy Turnblad, an overweight teenager living in Baltimore in1962, and follows her ascent to becoming featured on her favorite dancing show, “The Corny Collins Show,” and eventually, attempting to win Miss Hairspray and to integrate black and white dancers on the show, or as she puts it “make every day Negro Day.”

The casting is extremely hit or miss. Generally, everyone who you thought was a good fit for the material when you first heard about their casting, is, and those who made you go “Hm” are not.

The one exception to that rule is Queen Latifah as host of “The Corny Collins Show’s” Negro Day, Motormouth Maybell. She was the one huge question mark for me, and amazingly enough, she pulls it off. Yes, the Queen has proven she can act, and “Chicago” proved she can sing, but I doubted her ability to really belt the way Maybell needs to, both during “You Can’t Stop the Beat,” and her big number, “I Know Where I’ve Been.” Well, she can. She belts the hell out of the latter, and it was one of the few numbers that got applause from a majority of the audience (as opposed to a few hands clapping).

As for Nikki Blonsky as Tracy, she’s very good. She certainly doesn’t re-define the character—it’s played in exactly the way Marisa Jaret Winokur played her—but she can sing well and has enough spunk and charm to keep us loving the character, even when she’s fighting for screentime with nearly a dozen main characters.

Zac Efron fulfills all his promise from “High School Musical” as Tracy’s love interest Link—meaning he sings quite well, but can’t act for shit. Anytime he’s asked to deliver line of speaking (as opposed to singing) dialogue, it’s cringe-inducingly bad. Thankfully, most of his part consists of singing.

For Amanda Bynes, the opposite is true. She’s suitably annoying as Tracy’s best friend Penny, and does what she’s supposed to, but when it’s finally time for her to sing, what stopped the show on stage is an embarrassingly flat non-moment. Penny’s big moment is supposed to be backed up by an overpowering voice and Bynes just isn’t up to the challenge.

Christopher Walken as Tracy’s father Wilbur seemed to be inspired casting, and it is. He’s wonderful here, and quite possibly the MVP of the movie. He’s not just strange/quirky wonderful, he’s genuinely great. He’s pitch-perfect sweet when he needs to be, uses his now self-parodying delivery to excellent effect, and most of all, is a great song-and-dance man. His half of the duet “Your Timeless to Me” is superb, and I was in heaven every moment he was on screen.

Fighting Walken for the MVP crown is Michelle Pfieffer as villainous producer of “The Corny Collins Show,” Velma Von Tussle. Even though Shankman awkwardly directs her sole number, “Miss Baltimore Crabs,” she performs the shit out of it and makes it an early highlight in the film. She takes eye-rolling lines from the show (“Steer them in the white direction”) and makes them drip with delicious acid, making it all the more unfortunate how the film handles her character late in the proceedings; more on that later.

Brittany Snow does a fine enough job as Amber, Velma’s daughter and Tracy’s chief competition, but it’s not exactly a juicy part. What she’s asked to do, she does well, but it isn’t much.

Corny Collins was never a particularly large role, but James Marsden is perfectly cast as the TV show host, nailing the insincere-positivity shtick and singing quite well also. He might not be a big enough star to nail down a gig headlining a Broadway musical, but I’d pay to see it if he did.

Allison Janney only gets a handful of scenes as Penny’s religious/racist mother, Mrs. Pingleton, but she makes the most of them, providing the few moments in the movie that are genuinely hilarious, not just smile-inducing cute.

Elijah Kelley is a revelation as Seaweed, the headliner on Negro Day. Like most of the characters, he doesn’t have a bunch of straight dialogue, but he’s a great singer and dancer, and the scenes featuring him are probably the best-directed scenes in the film. Seaweed is one of the characters the movie completely nails, and that’s largely due to Kelley.

And now, I must address the elephant in the room (no pun intended), John Travolta.

Ever since casting was announced, he’s been by far the most controversial cast member. People have bitched and moaned about him from day one. I seemed to be one of the few who thought it was inspired casting, though I began to fret mildly once I saw glimpses of him in his fat suit and heard his manner of speaking in the trailer. Now, having seen the movie, I can state definitively that this is a massively crowd-pleasing performance. Audiences are going to completely dig Edna, and you could sense the giddiness in the audience I saw the film with whenever Travolta sang and danced across the screen. However, I’m sorry to report that I despised the performance with every fiber of my being. To be fair, whenever Travolta dances as Edna, magic happens. When she finally shimmies and shakes during “You Can’t Stop the Beat” at the movie’s close, it’s truly a great moment. The problem lies in what happens anytime Travolta opens his mouth.

In addition to his fat suit making him look like a creepy Muppet-esque creature, Travolta has opted to utilize what he apparently thinks is a Baltimore accent. Now I’m not a native, but I’ve been going to school in Baltimore for four years now, and I’ve heard people with Charm City accents—Travolta has taken every aspect of their manner of speaking and exaggerated it, elongated it and made it as garbled and mush-mouthed as possible. But if it was merely inaccurate, I wouldn’t be complaining; the chief issue is that it’s fucking irritating to listen to and anytime he speaks (or sings) I was literally cringing. I understand Travolta wanted to make a drastic change in his manner of speaking since he’s playing a woman, and wanted to differentiate from himself, but this was completely the wrong direction to go in.

I’m totally not a stickler for changes, and pointing out minor adjustments to the source material as flaws isn’t usually my style. Yes, there are changes in Shankman’s “Hairspray” and most of them were fine with me (e.g.: the excising of all the prison/“Big Doll House” material). But there was one change that particularly bothered me, because it (a) deprives Pfeiffer’s Velma of a satisfying/amusing resolution and (b) seems to go against the entire message of “Hairspray.”

*SPOILER ALERT* At the close of the Broadway production, the blatantly racist Velma Von Tussle is congratulated on a job well done producing the Miss Hairspray broadcast and is, ironically, rewarded by being promoted to head of the new black women’s division, and thus, her and her offspring Amber get to participate in the show’s big finale, “You Can’t Stop the Beat.” In Shankman’s version, Edna catches Velma on camera admitting she fixed the votes for Miss Hairspray; she is promptly fired and is seen seething while the rest of the characters perform the infectious number. I may be off here, but it seems to me that a huge part of “Hairspray” is a sense of inclusiveness and acceptance, making it all the more joyous that at the end of the show, even the supposed “villains” are embraced and sing along with the rest of the cast. Here, we’re just given Velma looking angry, and we supposedly feel satisfied knowing she is fired and upset. Maybe test audiences dictated it, I don’t know. *SPOILERS OVER*

I know, I know, this sounds like my reaction to the film was extremely negative. But I really did enjoy myself at “Hairspray.” It’s a very fun 110 minutes, though I do think those unfamiliar with the show will probably enjoy themselves a little bit more than those who consider themselves fans. However, fans will take comfort in the fact that more numbers are given justice on screen than not—“Welcome to the 60s,” “I Can Hear the Bells,” “Without Love,” “You’re Timeless to Me” and “Good Morning Baltimore” are particularly well-handled, and the latter features a completely perfect cameo by John Waters.

In the canon of recent movie musicals, “Hairspray” is markedly ahead of “The Producers” and “Rent” but falls short of the heights of “Chicago” and “Dreamgirls.” While I was disappointed—as I’ve said, I love the musical—I still had a good time and wasn’t crushingly disappointed. Needless to say, I’ll be taking in a second viewing on July 20th.


Anonymous Kelly said...

Thanks for that review!! Thats what I've been looking for I'm a fan of the movie and the stage show and your review was perfect and I agree with you about the spoiler!!! I just have one question about your spoiler part** So if anyone else is reading this and doesn't want to know don't look!!!

Is it just Velma not singing in the end or does Amber also join her and isn't singing??


5:03 PM  
Blogger JP said...

I donno...

This is a film. Just like the Von Tussle ending was different in the stage version compared to the original, I would expect this one two. The final part of YCSTB is one of my favorites, but I'm not sure if it would have worked well on screen.

You have to remember that the Von Tussles are the villains. They're mean, they're nasty, and above all they're racist. To suddenly be accepting of the change, and to be accepted themselves all in a big song and dance number might not go well with audiences.

It's like watching a disney movie, then all of a sudden at the end the villain begins to sing about how they've changed their ways.

1:52 AM  
Blogger Catherine said...

I skimmed past the spoiler as it hasn't hit cinemas in Ireland yet but I really enjoyed reading the rest of your review. I haven't seen the original Waters film nor have I seen any of the stage show, so I'm coming into this fresh. My only prior knowledge comes from singing one of the lead parts in my class version of "Mama, I'm A Big Girl Now" at the end of last year. I really can't wait though, it looks like enormous fun and the type of film that'll really unite the audience. Yippie!

11:00 AM  
Blogger Eegah said...

Wow. It looks disturbing.

4:20 PM  

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