At first blush, the idea of a movie musical based on the Broadway musical based on “Hairspray,” the film by John Waters, seems beyond derivative -- it’s practically inbred. So it comes as a surprise when the movie turns out to be as happy, healthy and attractive as it does. How the new film directed by Adam Shankman, written by Leslie Dixon and produced by Craig Zadan and Neil Meron (“Chicago”) compares to the staged production I can’t say, not having seen the show, but the movie’s style and exuberance torpedoed my initial misgivings within seconds.
It’s the strangest thing, but the huge budget seems to have given what began as a humble crackpot satire the scope and grandiosity it needed to really go over the top. The opening crane shot alone, which soars over the city’s humble brick row-houses to the strains of a civic love ballad, is hilariously over the top. Finally, you think, here is Baltimore as it was always meant to be oversold.
A buoyant fantasy of once-upon-a-time innocence, “Hairspray” is so upbeat, so exuberantly cheerful, that it could have easily turned into something quite embarrassing to behold. But for all its sweetness and genuine tenderness (who could have guessed that an intimate musical number featuring Christopher Walken and John Travolta would turn out to be the most romantic love scene of the year so far?), it’s also pretty well barbed. What it offers isn’t really a nostalgic look at a “more innocent time” so much as a saucy wink at a casually vicious time that is constantly being sold to us as innocent.
From the moment Tracy Turnblad (Nikki Blonsky) jumps out of bed and walks out her front door, every hair sprayed stiffly in place, her implacable enthusiasm is met with friendly reminders that the world is not quite the sunny place she believes it to be. In fact, she hasn’t even made it through the first musical number -- an ebullient love song to her beloved Baltimore -- when she’s already encountered rats on the street, drunks at a bar and a friendly neighborhood flasher, played by the multitalented Mr. Waters himself. School is boring, pregnant ladies celebrate their miracles with cigarettes and martinis, families with litters of kids cruise around in convertibles with seat-belt buckles dragging on the pavement, and the fundamentalist mother (Allison Janney) of her best friend, Penny Pinkleton (Amanda Bynes), is a bigot, as are too many others to count.
Tracy’s fondest dream is to become a regular dancer on the local “Corny Collins Show,” which is sort of a low-rent, daytime, local “American Bandstand.” But some girls, as we know, are bigger than others, some girls’ mothers are bigger than other girls’ mothers, and Tracy and Edna Turnblad (Travolta), who weighs somewhere in the vicinity of a freight elevator’s maximum load and hasn’t left the house since 1951 (it’s 1962), belong squarely in the first category. Despite Edna’s best efforts to dissuade her, Tracy auditions for the show when one of Corny’s regular dancers goes on a nine-month sabbatical. Initially rejected, Tracy eventually gets on the show, thanks largely to the efforts of her second-fondest desire, Link Larkin (Zac Efron), the lead male dancer.
Tracy’s confidence and instant popularity rile station manager and former Miss Baltimore Crab, Velma Von Tussle (Michele Pfeiffer), whose teen queen daughter Amber (Brittany Snow) happens to be Link’s girlfriend and dance partner. For Velma, Tracy represents the unthinkable possibility that some might value anything over skinny blond bitchiness. Other signs of Velma’s badness abound, and chief among them is her unwavering commitment to keeping the “Corny Collins Show” white, with the grudging exception of a once-monthly special. “Negro Day,” Tracy’s favorite day of the month, is emceed by Motormouth Maybelle (Queen Latifah), mother of the talented Seaweed (Elijah Kelley), whom Penny instantly falls for. When Velma decides to cancel “Negro Day,” Tracy is confronted with a difficult choice.
The plot turns on Tracy’s decision between her conscience and her dreams. But the heart of movie belongs to her parents, Edna and Wilbur (Walken). As fine as the performances uniformly are -- Bynes has been quietly displaying a serious comic gift for some time now; Pfeiffer is the most sublime ice queen/dragon lady/femme fatale to grace the screen since, I don’t know, Jessica Rabbit -- Travolta and Walken walk away with the movie with an easy grace that reminds you what it is that movie stars do. (And these days, it feels like, we really need reminding.) Walken’s Wilbur radiates a combination of salt-of-the-earth goodness, vague tenderness and underplayed wisdom that somehow configure into an unlikely ideal husband shape -- weird hair, hiked-up pants, stupid joke shop and all.
When, after a terrible misunderstanding, Wilbur invites Edna to dance among the laundry in the courtyard, he looks like a man in love. And one look at Travolta explains it. It’s not just the accent (“Ah’m trahn tuh ahrn here,” Edna says, indicating the pile of wrinkled laundry that needs attending to), or the 44 Triple E bust-line, the mama bear instincts, or the sweet gullibility. It’s not that you ever forget that you’re looking at John Travolta -- you don’t, really. It’s just that within five minutes of meeting Edna, you’ve completely forgotten that John Travolta was ever a man. His Edna is light-years away from the terrifying, greasy slattern created by Divine and from (I’m guessing, but it’s an educated guess) miles away from Harvey Fierstein and Bruce Vilanch’s interpretations. This Edna is not just any old woman, she’s a real lady.
“Hairspray.” MPAA rating: PG for language, some suggestive content and momentary teen smoking. Running time: 1 hour, 57 minutes. In wide release.