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HAIRSPRAY (director and choreographer: Adam Shankman; screenwriters: Leslie Dixon/based on the screenplay by John Waters and the musical stage play, book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan, music by Marc Shaiman, lyrics by Scott Wittman and Mr. Shaiman; cinematographer: Bojan Bazelli; editor: Michael Tronick; music: Mr. Shaiman; cast: John Travolta (Edna Turnblad), Michelle Pfeiffer (Velma Von Tussle), Christopher Walken (Wilbur Turnblad), Amanda Bynes (Penny Pingleton), James Marsden (Corny Collins), Queen Latifah (Motormouth Maybelle), Brittany Snow (Amber Von Tussle), Zac Efron (Link Larkin), Elijah Kelley (Seaweed), Allison Janney (Prudy Pingleton), Jerry Stiller (Mr. Pinky), Paul Dooley (Mr. Spritzer), Nikki Blonsky (Tracy Turnblad); Runtime: 107; MPAA Rating: PG; producers: Craig Zadan/Neil Meron; New Line Cinema; 2007)
“There’s nothing Divine about this tame Hairspray.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

There’s nothing Divine about this tame Hairspray. Though it opens and closes on a high note, as we start with the lively song of “Good Morning, Baltimore” and it closes with the cross-dressing Travolta revisiting the dance floor from his earlier days to give us a sample of what he can still do when he cuts a rug. Leslie Dixon turns in the uneven screenplay. Adam Shankman (“Bringing Down the House”/”The Pacifier”) enthusiastically directs and choreographs the movie version of the Broadway hit, that starred Harvey Fierstein. He supposedly played the Divine role as if he were Ethel Merman (I didn’t see the play, but a few of the reviewers mentioned this). The play was based on John Waters’s watered down to mainstream standards 1988 film. It’s a silly, feel-good, sitcom, musical/comedy satire on race prejudice, the movement for integration, social class bias, those not fitting in, youthful exuberance and being judged by appearances. The politically correct messages exclaim that integration is here to stay, the times are changing and those who don’t get with the program will become the outsiders or loom as ugly as the white racists in the film do. One character who crosses the color line says something like once you taste chocolate, you develop a taste for it. In this film, the blacks teach the whites how to dance, while the whites teach the blacks how to fight for their civil rights.

It’s as cheesy an experience as watching Dick Clark back in the day host American Bandstand. The satire and the music are crude and loud, as one would expect from former smut king John Waters. What’s missing is that special outrageous feeling Waters’s gave it, even if Waters sold-out to the mainstream pop culture establishment as far back as then. But even in that mild satire, Waters gave it a little something gay, subversive and freaky (Divine) that this remake didn’t even attempt.

If you’re looking for something on the cutting edge, you’re in the wrong pew. This is your typical empty summer movie that just happens to have a serious pro-integration view. It’s bouncy, but it’s as awkward as an elephant doing the twist on the dance floor. It shapes things much like hairspray, holding everything in place but if you touch it it’s icky and loses its grip.

It’s set in the 1962 of a racially troubled Baltimore (shot in Toronto), where the color line is respected by both blacks and whites. John Travolta plays the late drag queen Divine’s role of Edna Turnblad in drag and in a fat suit. He never fools us for a sec that he’s a lady, and he’s so uninteresting and restrained that he kills a role Divine took to great heights and made a classic that should be played by going over-the-top in a grandiose style. The always reliable Christopher Walken plays Tracy’s good-hearted gadget-loving father, Wilbur, who is a loving hubby to Edna.

Travolta’s Edna is the damaged goods, homebody, unsophisticated, working-class mother of the socially conscious, beehive wearing, plump, upbeat teenage heroine Tracy (Nikki Blonsky), who aspires to be on the local afternoon rock and roll television program called “The Corny Collins Show”–a show similar to “American Bandstand”–and dance with the cool dreamboat regular Link Larkin (Zac Efron). Tracy, who might not have the body but is a better dancer than the show regulars, soon works her way on the show and competes against Link’s snooty regular blonde beehive wearing dancing partner Amber (Brittany Snow) to try and win her title of “Miss Hairspray,” in the program’s dance competition. Amber’s mom, the film’s real heavy, is the racist and spiteful station manager and program producer, Velma (Michelle Pfeiffer), who does everything to ensure that Amber wins the competition and that there is no interracial dancing. In a subplot, Tracy’s pretty but shy girlfriend Penny (Amanda Bynes), saddled with a bigoted religiously fanatic mom (Allison Janney), falls for Negro dancer Seaweed (Elijah Kelley) and kisses him on the air. He’s the son of Motormouth Maybelle (Queen Latifah), who co-hosts Corny’s show once-a-month when it’s “Negro Day” and Negro music is played and they dance in a segregated roped-off area.

We’re left with a self-congratulatory serviceable pro-integration mainstream sitcom film that has its entertaining moments and is not a disaster, but it’s flat, lacking in a crazy charm and gives us the false impression that its broad utopian visions will come to pass only if teenager blacks and whites dancing to doo-wop, from tunes by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, are allowed to integrate the popular but mediocre pop culture scene. What’s missing is a bigger-than-life character to carry the pic and give it a real makeover for change, like Divine did for the original.

Waters has a cameo in the opening scene as the neighborhood streaker, running around in a trench coat with nothing underneath.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”