3 stars (out of four)
As mile-high-wig musicals go, the film version of "Hairspray" is less polished but more fun than "Dreamgirls." Both are drag revues at heart, one funny, the other serious. I prefer the funny one.
Whether or not "Hairspray" finds a large international audience depends on the audience's interest in seeing an international star enlarged. You have probably heard that this latest stage-to-screen musical transfer, based on the 1988 John Waters film, stars John Travolta in a chub suit. He's singing and dancing again, this time as a femme in strategic, voluminous padding and various down- and up-market frocks designed to express the many musical comedy moods of a newly emancipated early-'60s Baltimore hausfrau, whose daughter becomes an unlikely civil rights heroine.
Like many stars, Travolta, whom America got to know in his amiable juvie roles on "Welcome Back, Kotter" and in "Grease," has a plus-sized head on his shoulders. His eyes are close set, on the cusp of beady but not so you notice, not with that big chin and bigger smile. In "Hairspray" various silicone prosthetics bring those eyes even closer together. The pinched effect extends to the way Travolta delivers his songs, in a breathy squeak of a voice, with an accent that's oddly more "Fargo" than Baltimore.
The material itself has led a charmed life. Waters' screwball civil-rights fable worked from the beginning. The new version follows the well-established outline: Heroine Tracy Turnblad (Nikki Blonsky, very good) dreams of dreamy Linc Larkin (Zac Efron) no less than she yearns to be a regular on the local Baltimore dance-party hour "The Corny Collins Show," where teens like Linc and Amber (daughter of the show's venal mother hen, Velma) rule the roost.
These starry visions dovetail perfectly with Tracy's politicization and her drive to integrate the dance party so that African-Americans aren't confined to a monthly "Negro Day" appearance. All that trim, clean-cut whiteness coming out of every TV every second? Who benefits from that besides trim clean-cut white people?
Waters' film practically begged to be turned into a Broadway musical, and the result was one of the few of the last decade that actually had its wits about it. The movie version of the musical retains most of the laughs and much of the source material's gently subversive spirit. Screenwriter Leslie Dixon cherry-picks the best jokes from both previous versions and accommodates much of the Broadway score, while making room for a handful of new songs. There is, however, a dubious shift in story emphasis.
In her first on-screen role in five years, Michelle Pfeiffer plays the antagonist, Velma, and the Barbie-doll racist now dominates more of the narrative. Her comeuppance, part of the film's flat-footed climax, isn't enough. Pfeiffer handles the shtick well, but overemphasizing this bland witch makes for heavier going. Leave it to Christopher Walken to lighten things up in his own dear, unsettling way. The veteran actor-hoofer with the zero-gravity hair plays Tracy's novelty shop-proprietor father, and when he and la Travolta deliver the old soft shoe routine via "You're Timeless to Me," it's enough to compensate for Adam Shankman's workmanlike but rather static direction.
The director-choreographer's camera sense isn't all bad: For the opening number, "Good Morning, Baltimore," Shankman riffs on Rouben Mamoulian's "Love Me Tonight" intro, the sounds of the city (Paris, Baltimore--it's all the same) becoming part of the rhythmic accompaniment. At least Shankman's camera doesn't turn to stone, the way Susan Stroman's did in the recent film version of the musical "The Producers." Too often, though, we're shown dancers from the calves down or singers from the neck up. Hate to sound like Fred Astaire in 1934, but what's wrong with full body shots?
The supporting cast ranges from pleasant (Amanda Bynes, capturing about 60 percent of the comedy in the sidekick role of Penny) to officially overqualified (Queen Latifah as Motormouth Maybelle, who deserves a richer set of zingers). In the end they're all competing with Travolta in drag. It's strange to hear numbers originally gargled on Broadway by Harvey Fierstein (and sung on the road by, among others, Bruce Vilanch) coming out of Travolta's mouth. As pure scenery his Edna resembles the late Beverly Sills, though Sills never sang songs written by the melodist behind "South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut." Edna's voice doesn't match up with what we see; she seems to be a female of an indeterminate species. Yet she has innate grace in her step. Travolta was not born to play a demure frump of either gender or any species, but when he hits a simple dance combination, suddenly you glimpse the showman within and forget about the weird voice and all that padding.
Directed and choreographed by Adam Shankman; screenplay by Leslie Dixon, based on John Waters' "Hairspray" and the stage musical version; music by Marc Shaiman; lyrics by Scott Wittman and Shaiman; photographed by Bojan Bazelli; production designed by David Gropman; edited by Michael Tronick; produced by Craig Zadan and Neil Meron. A New Line Cinema release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:55. MPAA rating: PG (for language, some suggestive content and momentary teen smoking).
Edna Turnblad - John Travolta
Tracy Turnblad - Nikki Blonsky
Velma Von Tussle - Michelle Pfeiffer
Wilbur Turnblad - Christopher Walken
Penny Pingleton - Amanda Bynes
Motormouth Maybelle - Queen Latifah
Linc Larkin - Zac Efron
Seaweed - Elijah Kelley
Corny Collins - James MarsdenCopyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times