Extra hold on summer fun
John Travolta works a female fat suit like nobody’s business in Hairspray, the movie of the Broadway musical that was based on a movie (John Waters 1988 film). With catchy, if not altogether memorable music, and a dynamic performance from newcomer Nikki Blonsky, the film is about as fun as things get at cinemas this summer.
Blonsky plays Tracy Turnblad, living in 1962 Baltimore and completely uninhibited when it comes to that singing-in-the-streets thing. The film opens with Tracy blasting “Good Morning Baltimore,” riding garbage trucks and greeting flashers on the way to school. After school, she ritually meets up with best friend, Penny Pingleton (Amanda Bynes), to watch The Corny Collins Show, much to the dismay of Tracy’s mother, Edna Turnblad (Travolta).
It’s announced that a dancer spot is available on the show, and Tracy decides to try out. Because she’s a big girl, pompous Velma Von Tussle (Michelle Pfeiffer) deems her unworthy and instead uses the spot as a vehicle for her spoiled-brat daughter, Amber (Brittany Snow). Tracy doesn’t give up, and when she’s spotted by show star Link (Zac Efron) dancing it up with the African-American kids during detention, her stock rises, and she finally gets her chance.
Tracy’s appearance on the show has a positive effect on her mom, who decides to leave her apartment and laundry business behind after 10 years of seclusion to manage her daughter’s career. Travolta makes the wise decision to play Edna as a real person highly sensitive about her weight. After the initial shock of seeing him, Travolta disappears into the role, delivering a funny, sweet—and even a little heartbreaking—performance. It’s his best onscreen work since his return to the limelight in 1994’s Pulp Fiction.
As for Blonsky, she’s one of the more energetic, charismatic performers to hit screens this year. Her singing is infectious, her dancing is incredible, and she’s solid with the dramatic and comedic moments. This is one of the year’s great debut performances.
Christopher Walken is fantastic as Tracy’s kooky dad. He and Travolta share a dance number that just might qualify as one of the year’s more romantic scenes. (Wrap your head around that one!) James Marsden is a glowing force as show host Corny, fed up with segregation. (Blacks can only dance on “Negro Day,” something he wishes to abolish). Bynes proves herself a capable singer as Penny, who falls in love with African-American schoolmate Seaweed (Elijah Kelley). Kelley declares himself a force to be reckoned with in this film, performing a couple of music and dance sequences that don’t seem physically possible.
There’s more. Michelle Pfeiffer, who showed off a dazzling voice in The Fabulous Baker Boys, does it again in her villain role. Queen Latifah plays Motormouth Maybelle, Negro Day’s director, mother of Seaweed, and totally on fire. Latifah impressed with Chicago, but this is the role that shows her to be one of the greatest musical actresses working today.
I confess to my doubts about director Adam Shankman pulling this off. After all, this is the guy who directed stinkers like Cheaper by the Dozen 2, Bringing Down the House and The Pacifier. Shankman gets high marks for holding this film together. It might be a bit clunky in spots, but the big moments more than make up for it. He also choreographed all the dance numbers, which is no small achievement.
Hairspray has a nice story about integration and acceptance, an abundance of talent, and a huge smile-factor. This movie had me smiling as much as any in recent memory. I still can’t believe how taken I was with the John Travolta’s performance. If Edna can’t break your heart, you need to have that sucker checked.