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Recycled Waters

Third time around, Hairspray still flows fresh
By CHRIS BRAIOTTA  |  July 18, 2007
3.0 3.0 Stars

VIDEO: The trailer for Hairspray

Hairspray | Directed by Adam Shankman | Written by Leslie Dixon based on Mark O’Donnell’s adaptation of the John Waters film | with John Travolta, Nikki Blonsky, Amanda Bynes, Christopher Walken, Zac Efron, Queen Latifah, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Brittany Snow | New Line Cinema | 117 minutes
John Waters’s Hairspray, which marked his descent into an undistinguished gentility, is not even 20 years old. With that in mind, this Broadway-born remake seems doubly unnecessary. It’s a good thing, then, that Hairspray 2007 is so absurdly likable, with its go-get-’em energy and unironic joy.

The story revolves around the hearty optimism of Tracy Turnblad, a role that has newcomer Nikki Blonsky stepping in for Ricki Lake. Tracy’s a chubby teen of little note — not that good at school, too sweet to be a bad girl, too sunny to be arty or morose.

But she can dance. Every day she rushes home to catch The Corny Collins Show, a local Baltimore teen-idolatry franchise cribbed from American Bandstand. Tracy’s one dream is to win a spot on the show, joining the “nicest kids in town” for a daily wiggle sesh.

Of course, fat girls don’t become stars, especially not when TV-station manager Velma Von Tussle (played by a waspish, ropily Aryan Michelle Pfeiffer) is the gatekeeper. Salvation comes when Tracy is sent to detention in a room full of black students. Away from the eyes of the front office, these ignored kids stage day-long dance parties. Here, Tracy gets the chance to learn some moves that grab the eye of Corny Collins himself.

Baltimore stardom comes, but so does trouble. When the show’s monthly “Negro Day” gets canceled, Tracy endangers her new career to lead the demand for integration. This builds to a troubling dénouement in which a civil-rights march seems to be as much about glorifying Tracy’s slumming leadership as it is about equality.

The 1988 original achieved the improbable in crafting a family-friendly comedy about segregation. Still, it was such a nice film that it felt like a watery letdown coming from the man behind Pink Flamingos. Something funny happens in this new version, however. Divorced from a history of dog turds and drag queens, jokes and themes that were once taken for granted are rehabilitated into surprising jabs of edgy satire. How many sparkling teenage musicals make unfussed-over jokes about interracial romance? How many movies of any genre have the guts or the license to give us Velma Von Tussle, an unapologetic bigot whose hateful rants are allowed to be sly and funny?

That’s not to paint the film as some sleek satiric panther. When it’s delivering a joke, it relies on the same hacky punch-up that’s made Broadway tick for 80 years. What’s more, screenwriter Leslie Dixon and director Adam Shankman don’t do a great job of straining out the staginess. But it’s precisely all that unwinking hokum that makes the Waters-style barbs draw blood. The only complete failure is the misguided horror of John Travolta as Tracy’s mother Edna, out of his depth as he tries to get his Streep on with a swollen-tongued Baltimore accent.

Like the tone and (most of) the acting, the score is a triumph of enthusiasm. Since it takes place in 1962 — before rock and roll had finished its work of winnowing the breadth of popular music — the film can call on an eclectic bestiary of rock, R&B, blues, and adults-only Latin suavity. This adaptation does yoke an entire city’s black population to the gilded chariot of a spunky white girl’s do-gooderism. But dang if that doesn’t make Hairspray just like America.

Related: The girls of summer, Waters runs deep, A Date With John Waters, More more >
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