HAIRSPRAY directed by Adam Shankman, written by Leslie Dixon, with John Travolta, Michelle Pfeiffer, Queen Latifah, Christopher Walken and Nikki Blonsky. An Alliance Atlantis release. 107 minutes. Opens Friday (July 20). Rating: NNNN
Good movie musicals - from West Side Story to Fiddler On The Roof to Disney's Beauty And The Beast - need to introduce their themes, setting and style of music in their opening number, and that number'd better be spectacularly shot.
Adam Shankman's Hairspray comes out of the gate galloping. Not only does the opening set piece feature a "Remember my name, people!" performance by born-to-belt newcomer Nikki Blonsky, but it's also got dancing rats, ugly Toronto made up to look like ugly Baltimore and a John Waters cameo - as a flasher. All set to a three-minute pop song reminiscent of the girl-group sound of the 60s.
Waters, of course, directed the 1988 cult film that inspired the musical on which this is based. What's strange is that this movie, with one great big fat-suited difference, feels closer in spirit to his film than to the stage musical.
Plus-sized teen Tracy Turnblad (Blonsky) lives with her big-boned mom (John Travolta) and toothpick dad (Christopher Walken), and devotes all her time to watching the locally produced Corny Collins Show, where she wants to dance, meet the show's hunky star, Link (Zac Efron) - oh, and speed up integration while she's at it.
This is all wish-fulfilment fantasy, and film is a terrific medium for contrasting what's real with what's fake. Theatre is so artificial, we'll accept anything: wigs, cardboard sets, impromptu dance numbers.
Film is more ruthless in its naturalism. When Tracy dances with her neighbourhood rats in that opening sequence, it's as funny and subversive as seeing a big, homely girl get the leading man, or seeing an African American foil the bitchy Caucasian ice goddess. These things just don't happen - in life or at the movies.
Which is why the casting of Travolta in the role made famous (in the 1988 film) by drag queen extraordinaire Divine and (in the musical) by the sandpaper-voiced former drag queen Harvey Fierstein is so dumb.
Edna is a cliché straight out of soaps and suburbia: the homely, hard-working woman with good values who's ashamed of her size but still has her man. Casting a queer man with a few extra pounds in the role gooses our perceptions. If Tracy's an underdog, then what exactly is Edna?
Travolta is covered by layers of latex that makes him seem doughy and inhuman (in one scene where Edna's horizontal, Travolta's chin is essentially resting on his boobs). Unlike Divine and Fierstein, he raises his voice to imitate a woman's.
Why not cast Nathan Lane in the role? Or, better yet, Kevin James, who looks like he's actually related to Blonsky? (Oh, yeah, he's busy breaking down more gay stereotypes in I Now Pronounce You : Chuck & Larry.)
In a film that purports to champion the rights of big people, mixed-race couples and queers, Travolta's casting feels hypocritical.
Shankman started off as a choreographer before directing family comedies, and this is his most assured film yet. Scenes of teachers smoking in their lounge and pregnant women downing martinis hit hard and fast. And impossibly good-looking actors like James Marsden, Efron and Michelle Pfeiffer are nicely cast in roles that actually send up their beauty.
Too bad about Travolta.
Padding their resumés
John Travolta isn?t the first actor who?s donned a fat suit for filmic posterity. Here are some other notable thespians who?ve slipped on the rubber ? with mixed results.
What: Mrs. Doubtfire, kindly housekeeper with a few surprises under her apron
Lesson: Put Robin Williams in makeup and padding and... voila! It's Glenn Close!
What: Rosemary, a "grossly obese 300-pound woman" (hey, I'm quoting imdb.com) with an inner beauty that only Shallow Hal, Jack Black (not the most svelte of actors), can see
Lesson: All fat people are nice, and their "inner selves" look like tiny Oscar-winning actresses.
What: Jiminy Glick, obnoxious entertainment journalist, in Jiminy Glick In Lalawood
Lesson: Everyone knows we journos, besides not doing our research, eat too much at those junket buffets, right?
What: Dozens of characters in The Nutty Professor, Norbit, etc.
Lesson: Fat suit + thin laughs = fat paycheque but no Oscar
What: Hard-working Baltimore matron Edna Turnblad
Lesson: All casting choices are not Divine but can still be a drag.