Hairspray: Tame Waters

Pretty in Pink (David James/New Line Cinema)

{mosimage} Did John Waters sell out? Mellow with age? Or did this increasingly laissez-faire, metrosexual era merely render him irrelevant? Certainly, long before Hairspray took up residence on the Great White Way in 2002, Waters had seemingly abdicated his throne as America’s elder statesman of underground smut in favor of a more lucrative career as a neutered mainstream pop-culture icon, readily available for awards-show MC gigs and sitcom guest appearances. Yet, somehow, Hairspray on Broadway seemed to seal the deal, with its further taming of Waters’ already pretty tame, nonmusical 1988 movie version and its gently satiric tale of plus-sized Baltimore teen Tracy Turnblad, who becomes an unlikely instigator of integration on an American Bandstand–like TV show at the end of the Jim Crow era. Like Mel Brooks before him, Waters had completed the evolutionary cycle from fly in the ointment of bourgeois prudishness to avatar of family-friendly entertainment, and was getting very rich as a result. Thus, from shit eating to shit-eating grin.

In truth, the stage version of Hairspray was easily the best of the recent Broadway behemoths, even if it all but buried Waters’ skewering of WASP panic in the face of black progress beneath thick layers of tongue-in-cheek nostalgia. You could easily walk away from the musical Hairspray thinking that racial segregation in the early ’60s wasn’t anything that a little blues-infused doo-wop couldn’t cure, but the show was mercifully absent the labored slapstick of The Producers and the ponderous self-seriousness of Wicked. More importantly, the songs were pretty darn good — a dozen and a half clever, up-tempo numbers styled by composer-lyricist Marc Shaiman and co-lyricist Scott Wittman after the Top 40 hits of the era (the Angels, Jackie Wilson, et al.). And, unlike the songs from Dreamgirls (which charts roughly the same period in American music history from the other side of the race lines), the Hairspray song score featured an abundance of good old-fashioned soul.

Hairspray the movie musical has been conceived and executed as a faithful record of the stage version, but that’s all it is — a recording. Registering somewhere between Susan Stroman (who made the abominable 2005 film version of The Producers) and Bob Fosse on the scale of choreographers turned directors, Adam Shankman shows a lot of know-how when it comes to the placement and movement of human bodies, but considerably less when the object at hand is a movie camera. No, Shankman doesn’t slice-and-dice his musical numbers into MTV oblivion (à la Chicago). But one thing is evident right from the opening number, “Good Morning Baltimore,” a spirited parody of introductory tunes like “The Trolley Song” from Meet Me in St. Louis, in which Tracy (played here by perky newcomer Nikki Blonsky) rolls out of bed and into a pastel universe of winos, streakers and sewer rats: The movie is flat — not pasty and garish in the way that Waters turned into a signature style, but merely serviceable and competent in the worst tradition of Hollywood “professionalism.”

Shankman has gotten Hairspray on the screen all right, but he hasn’t rethought the material in cinematic terms (the way, for example, that Frank Oz did when adapting the similarly stylized Little Shop of Horrors), and the result is an odd hybrid that lacks either the rambunctious energy of a live performance or the expressionistic pull of a great movie musical. That leaves the film to survive on its auditory pleasures and the novelty of its stunt casting, most notably John Travolta as Tracy’s plus-plus-size mom, Edna — a role originated (in the 1988 film) by longtime Waters muse Divine and subsequently inhabited (onstage) by such queer-culture doyens as Harvey Fierstein and Bruce Villanch.

That most dandyish of ostensibly straight contemporary screen performers, Travolta seemed like sound casting — yet, given this primo opportunity to get his femme thing on, he’s oddly restrained and tamped down in a part that calls for grandiosity. (I for one spent most of the movie trying to figure the inspiration for Travolta’s slurry, monotonous vocal inflection, until I pinpointed it as being a misbegotten hybrid of Ed Sullivan and Homer Simpson.) Meanwhile, as the movie’s vampish villainess Velma Von Tussle, Michelle Pfeiffer plays her scenes with such shrill, white-rich-bitch intensity that all of a sudden her lengthy screen hiatus (this is her first live-action role since White Oleander in 2002) doesn’t seem to have been quite long enough.

Hairspray is far from an abject failure, but its only flashes of inspiration exist on the periphery, chiefly in Queen Latifah’s joyous performance as Motormouth Maybelle, hostess of the monthly “Negro Day” on the film’s Bandstand simulacrum, The Corny Collins Show; in Christopher Walken, too-little-seen as Tracy’s gadget-man dad, doing some elegant soft-shoe to the Comden-and-Green-style ditty “Timeless to Me”; and in Corny Collins himself, James Marsden, who’s so adept at playing period roles (here and in The Notebook) that you dread the thought of ever seeing him in another comic-book adaptation. Though much of the publicity surrounding Hairspray is focused on the casting of tween pinup du jour Zac Efron as resident Collins heartthrob Link Larkin, it’s Marsden — sporting enough Brylcreem to deflect most forms of radiation and flashing a Pepsodent smile that could guide ships to shore in a raging monsoon — who twinkles his baby blues (and belts out a surprisingly strong singing voice) until he seems the epitome of the virginal 1950s innocence to which Hairspray is, ultimately, a cockeyed adieu.

HAIRSPRAY | Directed by ADAM SHANKMAN | Written by 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 and lyrics by SCOTT WITTMAN and SHAIMAN | Produced by CRAIG ZADAN and NEIL MERON | Released by New Line Cinema | Citywide

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