Adam Shankman is responsible for some of this decade’s lousiest Hollywood product, and though his 2003 abomination Bringing Down the House may be big in some circles (particularly among gays who should be turned off by its minstrelsy), it’s a soul-killing dirge for film comedy, with no regard for satire whatsoever. Shankman’s movies make a shitload, and often stink like one, but somewhere along the way, he must have picked something up (maybe in choreographing truly great modern films like Boogie Nights and Stuck on You), because this new candy-colored version of John Waters’s affectionate ode to the music of Baltimore in the 1960s and embracing your girth is the kind of movie tuner that we’ve been promised for years now. Keep in mind that this was a film nobody really asked for, especially since it would be hard to top Waters’s 1988 gem, a movie so comfortable in its own skin it’s kind of amazing anyone ever thought to give it a Broadway life. But that they did, retaining the basic story and all of its vibrant characters, with a full-blown score by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman that forcefully recaptured ‘60s R&B and soul. But soul is exactly what seemed to be missing from the stage version; for all its high energy, it was a little too much of a toothache at times, and the book clobbered you over the head with its mixed-race messages, to the point where you were waiting for the company to deliver PSAs (humorously, they do just that at the tail end of the cast recording).
But in doing some constructive nip/tuck and staging the musical numbers in splashy old-musical style, Shankman has put some of the bang back into the genre. When pleasantly plump teen Tracy Turnblad (Nikki Blonsky, in an utterly winning debut) first steps onto the city pavement in the opening scene to deliver the film’s energetic opener “Good Morning Baltimore,” the film has a palpable pulse that carries it (mostly) right to the end. Tracy is still a sweet teen living with her obese, well-meaning mother (John Travolta, in fright drag) and jokester papa (Christopher Walken) and dreaming of dancing on The Corny Collins Show with best pal Penny Pingleton (Amanda Bynes). The show is segregated due to the bitch-on-wheels TV honcho Velma Von Tussle (Michelle Pfeiffer), whose daughter Amber (Brittany Snow), along with young hottie Link Larkin (Zac Efron), is one of the show’s star attractions. But when the community is divided over allowing blacks on the program, Tracy joins local celebrity Motormouth Maybelle (Queen Latifah) and fellow student Seaweed (Elijah Kelley) in a march for integration, the latter of whom gives Penny a major case of jungle fever.
Hairspray doesn’t always make all the right moves. The young supporting players (save for a buoyant Kelley) are mostly bland, not having the requisite winks in their eyes the elder performers do, and Shankman’s indulgences are still there (notice how every boy in Tracy’s classes is runway-model beautiful). But from a director who is responsible for the most offensive movie about race, well, ever, it’s astonishing how tastefully the subject is handled here. Even his Bringing Down the House leading lady Queen Latifah backpedals her sassy shtick, making Motormouth Maybelle more than a Big Black Lady Who Stops The Show (to quote a very witty Shaiman song from another show). She does very well by her two big numbers, “Big, Blonde And Beautiful” and the power anthem “I Know Where I’ve Been,” but the real breakout here is Pfeiffer, who has at last recaptured her screwball side. Velma is a forgettable role onstage, with the lamest song (“Miss Baltimore Crabs”), but in an expanded role, Pfeiffer nails it and the role. Her material could be punchier (actually, so could a few of the bigger dialogue scenes), but she’s marvelously alert here—though it’s a shame she doesn’t get to join in on the finale as in the show. That might be advantageous since the finale (“You Can’t Stop The Beat”) falls a little flat, possibly because the song is a key lower than it should be, and the editing becomes jumbled at that point. (Why cut from Amanda Bynes during her big moment? Could it be that maybe she couldn’t dance at all?)
The most controversial casting was of course Travolta, who has thrown fans into a tizzy with his Vinnie Barbarino-on-Quaaludes Baltimore/Valley drawl, but once you get used to it (not to mention the grotesque quality of the makeup), you realize the sincerity of the performance. Rather than playing mother Edna Turnblad as a joke, Travolta embraces her meekness, and, actually, the more abnormal the actor looks, the better his appearance socks across the movie’s point about the haves and have-nots of society. And his rapport with Walken is very sweet, especially in their big love duet “(You’re) Timeless To Me,” even if the ultra-screwy Walken is at his most Walken here, with those studdered cadences more prominent than ever. (The name Edna has no less than three syllables when Walken pronounces it.) Also worth a mention is James Marsden, terrific as host Corny Collins; amazingly, this actor has over the last few years become a truly dependable supporting player, and his vocals here are pretty impressive for a newbie.
Shankman keeps everything rolling, which is really saying something in this age of ground-to-a-halt musical turkeys. One brisk cut of a trio of pretty white ladies turning into three black singers says more than anything in Bill Condon’s disastrous version of Dreamgirls, and to his credit, this director didn’t need to cull talent from pop music and American Idol to round out the cast. (Okay, Efron is from High School Musical…but at least that show is a musical.) There is real showmanship here, a rare bird in musical movies these days. Maybe they should give Shankman another shot at the musical dogs of movies past. A Chorus Line: The Movie again, anyone?