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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Feeling Good in Baltimore
by John P. McCarthy

Hairspray -- the candy-colored film version of the Broadway hit inspired by John Waters' 1988 movie -- does what a musical should: it makes you feel good. Never mind that it also engenders some guilt and suspicion.

Regarding the guilt, you feel like Edna Turnblad -- zaftig mother of pleasantly plump, rhythmic heroine Tracy -- eyeing a soul-food buffet. You know Hairspray is a fattening treat but can't resist. Then you realize you'll burn off the calories tapping your toes; and besides, it delivers a healthy, socially redeeming message of racial integration.

Your suspicion derives from wondering how a king of shock and smutty outrage like Waters could have created something so fundamentally wholesome. Even in 1988, the campiness was muted and Waters (who has a cameo in this movie as a flasher) came dangerously close to joining the mainstream. He seemed like a conformist compared to Hag in a Black Leather Jacket (1964) or the notorious Pink Flamingos (1971) in which his leading lady was  played by childhood pal and transvestite, Glen Milstead (a.k.a. Divine).

This Hairspray is infectious in two different senses. First, to the white population of Baltimore circa 1962, when Tracy (Nikki Blonsky) shakes up the local television dance program "The Corny Collins Show," integration was akin to a communicable disease. Second, it makes you wonder whether anything is immune to the homogenizing power of Broadway. Perky but not saccharine, with just enough satirical wit, Hairspray's only subversive elements are its high quality and restraint -- it doesn't try to do too much. Then again, a white girl joining black kids to protest inequity doesn't happen every day.

In case you're worried Hairspray might be too smooth and polished, there's John Travolta as Edna, the role originated by Divine. Neither believably authentic nor over-the-top, it's a disconcerting performance. Playing it straight, Travolta appears to be channeling Kirstie Alley using extensive padding and a thick Maryland accent.

Edna is reluctant to let Tracy audition for a spot on the teenie-bopper afternoon staple. She's conditioned herself to believe winning a place on "The Corny Collins Show" is a dream that doesn't come true for outsiders like Tracy. And forget about wresting the Miss Hairspray crown from Amber (Brittany Snow) or marching in protest against the station for canceling the show's once-monthly Negro Day. Unfortunately, Travolta's unfunny performance distracts from the emotional heart of the story.

Hairspray succeeds nevertheless because director and choreographer Adam Shankman gives it formal unity. The directing and dancing are of a piece. At once stagy and cinematic, the movie blends the old-fashioned power of singing and dancing with the elixir of forbidden love. It has a pleasantly unreal quality, opening with a bird's-eye pan down to the Turnblad's row house. This is a movie where cops dance in the streets, billboards and picture frames seamlessly come alive with crooning characters, and the Tracy's of the world do triumph.

Other, more senior cast members include Michelle Pfeiffer as Amber's villainous mother, Queen Latifah (in her element and wearing a platinum wig), and a relatively sedate Christopher Walken as Wilbur Turnblad. They're all eclipsed by the scrumptious junior set -- Amanda Bynes, Zac Efron, and Elijah Kelley. Bridging the two generations is James Marsden, a revelation as Corny Collins.

Hairspray has another claim to fame in addition to these charismatic turns. It's the first movie in which the MPAA, following a new policy, has cited smoking as a factor in the content rating. During musical numbers, girls smoke in the school lavatory, teachers huddle in their smoke-filled lounge and pregnant women drink martinis and puff away at a bar. These snippets provide humorous commentary on life in 1962 and, more importantly, offer reassuring evidence that Waters is still capable of upsetting the censors and at least one set of moral crusaders.

(Released by and rated "PG" for language,  some suggestive content, and momentary teen smoking.)

Listen to John P. McCarthy discuss Hairspray on BlogTalkRadio by clicking here.

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