For the second time in two years a picture arrives in the multiplexes via an unconventional route. In 2005 we witnessed the culmination of a progression that saw Mel Brooks' hilarious 1968 film The Producers become a sellout Broadway musical and ultimately a movie adaptation of the theatrical production. This week we see Hairspray arrive in local theaters by the same route. It began life as John Waters' off-beat 1988 comedy, later became a smash New York musical and now makes its way back onto celluloid as an adaptation of the play. The musical-movie version of The Producers was a considerable disappointment, particularly for fans of the original film. Happily, Hairspray fares better. It's way corny, but it's bursting with energy, fun and sly heart.
With a script by Leslie Dixon adapting Waters' original screenplay, Hairspray is a tour de force by director/choreographer Adam Shankman. As in the non-musical version, the singing/dancing rendition is the story of Tracy Turnblad, an early 1960s Baltimore schoolgirl played here with unbridled optimism and pep by Nikki Blonsky. Tracy is overweight and not much of student, but she's friendly and outgoing, and life hasn't taken the starch out of her dreams yet. She has teased her hair into the popular bouffant of the era, and, by golly, she still thinks she can grow up to be president. In the short term, however, she wants nothing more than to be a regular on the "Corny Collins Show" an American Bandstand knockoff that features a company of local teens crooning tunes and strutting their stuff every afternoon after school. Tracy doesn't seem to notice that all the kids on the show are slender, athletic, handsome and pretty in a way that she isn't. She has, on the other hand, noticed that all the kids on the show are white, except for once a month on "Negro Day" when only black kids perform, and she thinks that's rotten because she loves the black kids' dance moves the best, and besides integration is just so neat.
Tracy's mom Edna (played as always by a man, in this case a delightfully winning John Travolta) is more alert to society's cruelty and worried that Tracy's attempts to join the in-crowd will result in her getting hurt. Tracy's doofus dad Wilbur (Christopher Walken), however, encourages his daughter to pursue her dreams whatever they may be. The paternal judgment, in this case, turns out to be the wise one.
Tracy and her best friend Penny Pingleton (Amanda Bynes) show up for an audition, but since Penny can't dance, she hasn't got a chance. Station manager Velma Von Tussle (Michelle Pfeiffer, a Grease 2 veteran who still has all the right moves), schemes like the Wicked Witch of West Baltimore and sneers at Tracy's size. Corny Collins (James Marsden) himself, though, intervenes on Tracy's behalf, provides her a chance to perform, and, given what a preening lounge lizard he seems, surprisingly stands up for the black kids too. In the unlikely world of Hairspray, decency has a fair chance of carrying the day. Though not, of course, if Velma can rig the annual talent contest so that her daughter Amber (Brittany Snow) can win still again.
The racial politics in Hairspray are Brylcreme thin and just as slick. You contemplate them very much at the peril of reacting to the film in the way it doesn't intend. Thinking of the astonishing bravery of civil rights marchers demanding access to public facilities and the opportunity to vote, striding defiantly into the teeth of police dogs and into the blunt force of men with billy clubs and axe handles, I squirmed a bit when the black kids, Tracy and Edna in their ranks, march on the TV station for the right to dance on TV. But then, Mel Brooks has always argued that we will defeat evil most assuredly if we can laugh in its ugly face. In short, we need to accept Hairspray on its own terms: a good-hearted farce without the ambition to say anything profound. And so be it.
Meanwhile, the picture provides many pleasures. Travolta situates himself for the year-end award competitions. Queen Latifah plays Motormouth Maybelle, the host of "Negro Day," with a twinkle in her eye and a voice that can fill a football stadium. Allison Janney as Penny's uptight, Bible-thumping mom offers up nostril-flaring prudery with as much disdain as Dana Carvey's Church Lady. In a sequence reminiscent of Joel Grey's Master of Ceremonies singing "If You Could See Her (Through My Eyes)" in Cabaret, Wilbur serenades Edna in "(You're) Timeless to Me," an anthem about love's blindness and the triumph of inner beauty over its physical shroud. Then Wilbur and Edna dance, and both guys, as we've always known, can really dance, and despite the silliness, their gracefulness prevails. And we eagerly surrender disbelief to relish the warmth of emotion that arrives with the giddy punch of effective surprise.