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Monday, 29 November 1999 18:00
Local opening date: 7/20/2007
Reviewed by Martha K. Baker
About one-third of the way through most John Waters' movies, boredom sets it. By then the naughtiness has run its course, and the film becomes an exercise in tolerance just waiting for the end, because it usually picks up the movie's pace. The same thing happens to the musical version of Hairspray and now to the film version of Waters' 1988 movie.

At first, the story seems to be about a fat teen, Tracey Turnblad, and her fat mother, Edna, who takes in ironing. The teen has a dream to dance on the local television station's Top 40s dance show, but since this is the Sixties and since the setting is Baltimore - this IS a Waters' story, remember - the plot includes something a little edgier than a girl's dream. For Hairspray, that edge is integration.

The television show is chock-a-block full of pasty white people - except for Negro Day, which comes once a month. One day, when Tracy is sent to detention, she discovers all the black kids asingin' and aboppin'. Led by a kid named Seaweed, Tracy learns their dances and through the magic of movies she not only is picked to dance on TV, but also she walks in the protest march to see that blacks and whites dance together, much to the dismay of the station manager.

 

Michelle Pfeiffer plays Velma Von Tussle, the unabashedly racist manager, and she plays her well, as brittle and hopeless. Queen Latifah plays Motormouth Maybelle with regal reserve. Christopher Walken is a surprise in the comic role of Walter Turnblad. James Marsden plays the show's host with more range than one expects in that smiley role. Nikki Blonsky shines as Tracy, happy, bouncy, and totally accepting of everyone. Even John Waters shows up early, as a flasher. Would that he had stuck around longer to add some vinegar to the movie that follows.

The poorest casting choice was that of John Travolta as Edna. Originally, Divine, a 300-lb drag queen, played the part. By casting a straight male in a fat suit, all the edginess of the original goes down the same drain overflowing with the poor decisions that turned "La Cage aux Folles" from a story taken from the French demimonde into a bland musical, on stage and film, with all the life of a man-made sponge. Travolta, who moves better than most actors, is constrained in this role in more ways than one, and the Carol Channing voice doesn't work at all.

Hairspray was directed by Adam Shankman, who also directed Bringing Down the House. His best use of film over stage is in the scene where Travolta and Walken appear as flamenco dancers and then as Fred and Adele Astaire. That worked! Hairspray is a little fun and a lot boring.

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