Review: Hairspray

It’s 1962 Baltimore, and overweight teen Tracy Turnblad (Nikki Blonsky) dreams of being a dancer on her favourite TV show, The Corny Collins Show, which she watches religiously with dopey-looking best friend Penny (Amanda Bynes). This is a show run by fascist former beauty queen Michelle Pfeiffer who relegates African-American performers to a once a month Negro Day slot (hosted by powerhouse Motormouth Maybelle, played by Queen Latifah), and pushes her bitchy daughter Brittany Snow to the fore at every opportunity. So when plump, integration-favouring Tracy tries out for the show, she is ridiculed and turned away by the venomous mother and daughter pairing. However, Corny Collins himself (James Marsden) notices Tracy and gets her on the show, which allows her to get close to dreamy Link Larkin (Zac Efron), further angering Snow (who had previously dated Link). Meanwhile, frumpy housewife Edna Turnblad (John Travolta!) worries for her daughter on the sidelines, especially when she starts speaking out on issues like integration and hanging out with Motormouth Maybelle and co. Christopher Walken is Tracy’s more supportive, joke store-owning father. Allison Janney turns up as Bynes’ ignorant and fearful conservative mother, and original cast members Jerry Stiller (as a clothing store owner for plump people) and Ricki Lake (as a talent show judge) turn up briefly.

Disappointingly safe 2007 Adam Shankman (the weak Steve Martin/Queen Latifah offering “Bringing Down the House”) big-screen adaptation of the Tony Award winning Broadway musical version of the somewhat mainstream 1988 John Waters flick has some good cheer and a couple of good songs (notably the sunny opening ‘Good Morning Baltimore’). However, it gets just about everything wrong that the Waters film got right. I’m not sure what the stage version was like, but this is a tepid, mainstream (yeah, so was the original, but it was John Waters’ version of mainstream!), overlong musical just doesn’t work.

I’m not much of a fan of musicals to begin with, but there are far too many songs, few of them any good, and all of which mostly serve to pad the film out and slow it down. Worst of all, the humour and quirk are entirely absent, despite the plot (and several moments) being pretty much the same as in the Waters film. It’s as if no one here had any clue what made the earlier film (a fun, but spotty spoof on early 60s living, and Rock ‘n’ roll flicks) work as well as it did. For instance, the earlier film’s one big schlock element, the perverted psychiatrist played by Waters himself, which was the funniest thing in the movie, is not here at all. Instead, Waters appears briefly during the ‘Good Morning Baltimore’ number as a street flasher. Cute, yes, but not even risqué or bizarre for 1988 let alone 2007 (or 2018). Worse still, the racial equality element that was only somewhat preachy in the earlier film, is now a major, heart-tugging part of the film. It’s heavy-handed, sappy, and takes up way too much time.

And then we come to the casting and characters, and Shankman can’t even get that right. Sure, Walken is well-cast in the Jerry Stiller role, but gets nothing interesting or funny to say or do. He’s just a sentimental eccentric father figure, and second fiddle to his plump wife. Pfeiffer (superficially attempting to channel Debbie Harry), Bynes and the usually energetic Queen Latifah, aren’t much help, either. They play their roles serviceably (Latifah is at least better than her 1988 counterpart in the acting department) but nothing memorable. Many saw newcomer Blonsky as a ray of light in this film, and a star to watch, but I couldn’t stand her. Aside from the aforementioned opening number, her overly self-conscious mugging and phony good cheer grate with every passing moment. You want to like her, until you realise that she and everyone else her want you to like her. So I hated her (she’s also trying too hard to act like Ricki Lake, if you ask me). Efron (sporting an extremely unconvincing early 60s hairdo) and Marsden are perhaps well-cast but are rather paper-weight in the roles which are already thin anyway. Then we come to Travolta, playing the part previously played on film by transvestite actor Divine, and on Broadway by the inimitable Harvey Fierstein. Donning a fat suit that isn’t for a second believable, affecting a caricatured mousy voice, Travolta is enormously unconvincing as a woman, let alone Edna Turnblad. Divine was a pretty awful actor (which was largely the point), but at least Divine made a convincing Edna Turnblad, and so was convincing within the skewed world Waters created. Therefore, we could find the character interesting and appealing. Travolta is merely Travolta in a fat suit trying to act like a chick for the purposes of cheap laughs and, most foolishly, sentimentality. That’s not the same thing, and it’s never a convincing enough act to warm to Travolta’s Edna (especially when Travolta tries to sing in that faux-girlie voice and appalling Baltimore accent). The act is also never even remotely funny, either. It fails completely, as it’s just stunt casting that never comes off. This, along with the over-reliance on songs (there’s practically no time for anything else), prevent the film from being any more than tolerable and occasionally watchable.

Scripted by Leslie Dixon (“Mrs. Doubtfire”, “Limitless”), based on material previously seen on stage and film that probably didn’t need to be regurgitated again. Did I mention that I hate musicals? So yeah, I wasn’t feeling this one much. Others seem to wildly disagree, however.

Rating: C+


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