Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Hairspray / **** (PG)

Tracy Turnblad: Nikki Blonsky
Edna Turnblad: John Travolta
Velma Von Tussle: Michelle Pfeiffer
Wilbur Turnblad: Christopher Walken
Penny Pingleton: Amanda Bynes
Amber Van Tussle: Brittany Snow
Link Larkin: Zac Efron
Seaweed: Elijah Kelley
Corny Collins: James Marsden
Motormouth Maybelle: Queen Latifah

New Line Cinema presents a film directed by Adam Schankman. Written by Leslie Dixon, based on the 1988 film by John Waters and the 2002 Broadway musical by Mark O’Donnell & Thomas Meehan with music and lyrics by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman. Running time: 117 min. Rated PG (for language, some suggestive content and momentary teen smoking).

If someone had told me at the beginning of the year that “Hairspray” would be one of my favorite films of 2007, it would have induced a whiplash-worthy double take. I am beside myself over how much I enjoyed this film. What an understatement to say that it is a rarity to find a film that is this fun and funny, smart and witty, rollicking and entertaining, and – dare I say it – intelligent. It almost doesn’t seem right that one film should contain so much of what makes movies magical.

I know it sounds crazy. This is a movie musical (in an age where the genre is all but dead) based on a hit Broadway play (of which no recent production has translated successfully to film), which itself was based on shock and schlock director John Waters’ subversive, exploitative independent film starring a transvestite. It all sounds like one of those Hollywood miracle stories where the kid from the wrong side of the tracks goes to some audition just to tag along with a friend and ends up becoming an overnight sensation but you just know there’s more to the story than meets the eye. Well, here’s what you may have never guessed about this movie—every millimeter of film and every second of soundtrack is filled with effervescent joy for life. And it also unleashes scathing social commentary, adding even more life and humor to the story without ever getting in the way of the good time to be had.

Tracy Turnblad is a girl in the mid-sixties who dreams of dancing on The Corny Collins Show, the local Baltimore teeny-bopper dance program, with her high school crush Link Larkin. Tracy is not your typical romantic heroine, however; she is short, overweight and enjoys singing to the rats in the streets. Newcomer Nikki Blonsky plays her with all the verve and spunk necessary to pull off a comedy as unlikely as this one.

Tracy has more to overcome than just her physical appearance. Her mother Edna, played in drag by John Travolta (“Wild Hogs”), is a shut-in who is willing to settle for dreams that have been truncated because of her own weight and the cruelty of others. She insists Tracy would find more fulfillment out of removing blood stains from car upholstery than pursuing her dreams to be famous. Christopher Walken (“Click”) plays Tracy’s dad Wilbur, who is supportive of his daughter’s need to enact change.

Although Corny Collins (James Marsden, the “X-Men” trilogy) is very progressive with his ideas of racial integration for the show along with spotlighting Tracy as a dancer, Tracy must get past his producer, the vicious Velma Van Tussle (Michelle Pfeiffer, “I am Sam”). Velma is resistant to the show’s broader social acceptance of blacks and all people who aren’t “Nice White Kids”. She has also positioned her daughter Amber (Brittany Snow, “John Tucker Must Die”) to be both the reigning Hairspray Queen of the show and the girl of the talented Link (Zac Efron, Disney Channel’s “High School Musical”).

To spend anymore time hacking out the film’s plot would only serve to sully its luster. There is so much to enjoy that I almost want to save it all for you to discover on your own. But that won’t stop me from listing some of the film’s aspects that made me smile the most. I’m happy Queen Latifah crossed over from her hip hop career to lend her performance talents to movies like this one. I am glad family networks like Disney and Nickelodeon have graduated such gifted young actors as Zac Efron and Amanda Bynes for everyone to enjoy. Bynes (“She’s the Man”) is a particular joy to watch as Tracy’s bubble-headed friend Penny. It is also great to see veteran performers like Travolta, Pfeiffer and Walken return to their roots in musical film. Walken and Pfeiffer retain the viscous relationship they shared in “Batman Returns”, although they’ve swapped sides.

I regret that I don’t take notes while watching a picture. There are so many funny lines, both in the dialogue and lyrics, I could have filled an entire notebook. I would have to have had a pause button, however, since I was too busy laughing to take any notes. And the laugh count rises exponentially as the film goes on. Leslie Dixon’s adaptation is wonderfully witty and intelligent, spanning from the broad slapstick humor of Wilbur’s whoopee cushion mattress to the biting satire of the relationships between blacks and white and the subversive sexual innuendo sprinkled throughout.

Adam Schankman (“Cheaper by the Dozen 2”) assembles a top notch production staff as well. David Gropman’s production design and Rita Ryack’s costumes simultaneously transport the audience to the vibrant colors and styles of the mid ‘60s while evoking a fantastical quality that makes you ponder how wonderful it would be to really look the way these people do. Schankman carries the fantasy into his direction, which whimsically utilizes the environment these characters find themselves in as an active element in expressing their own dreams. Notice how still pictures come alive during the “Without Love” and “Welcome to the 60s” numbers, or how Edna’s and Wilbur’s costumes change along with their song styles in the “(You’re) Timeless to Me” sequence.

“Hairspray” is a wall-to-wall musical. The songs barely stop to allow for the brief snippets of dialogue that keep the story running. Even most of the social commentary is carried through the song lyrics. Oh, and those lyrics are so yummy if you listen.

This movie works on so many levels. If you just want a fun time tapping your toes to the wonderful music and laughing at the silly people on screen, this movie is for you. If your tastes tend toward the darker, more perverse elements of Water’s original material, this film is even more successful than the original since his biting satire is presented in such a delicious candy coating.

To think I almost didn’t go to the movies this weekend. If you made that mistake, please take the time to go see “Hairspray” tonight.

Buy it: John Waters movies

1 comment:

OKonheim said...

You're introducing John Trovolta as the guy from Wild Hogs and Christopher Walken as the guy from Click? It isn't the convention for movie writers to introduce an actor by there most recent film but by there most famous film.

Anyway, I don't know if this stance takes much stance but I don't think that the film had much original social commentary to it, because it was a remake. If a remake updates a certain theme to a contemporary setting than I say bravo. Manchurian Candidate did that, but I can't praise this film for its boldness in its message so much as I would be praising the film for reintroducing a previous message.

I also agree, Hairspray is my #6 or 7 for the year because I just felt it had so much ubridled enthusiasm.