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Arts & Culture

Hairspray

Flash forward nearly two decades. Now Waters has given his seal of approval to both a Broadway play and a film adaptation of that stage musical. He even has a cameo (appropriately enough hes a flasher) in the movies opening number as if to assure his fans that all this is okay.

This latest incarnation of Hairspray is brought to the screen by choreographer turned director Adam Shankman. He creates a knowingly old school movie musical thats buoyed by the vibrant energy of his young cast. The plot stays fairly close to Waters original. The focus of this teen tale is Tracy Turnblad (Nikki Blonsky making her feature film debut), a bubbly Baltimore high schooler with big dreams of becoming a dancer on the local Corny Collins Show (only Waters could have come up with a name like that!). Tracy thinks school's a bore but she's totally obsessed with making her dream a reality. Along the way she also gets her oversized mom (John Travolta in drag and a fat suit) out of the house; helps to abolish segregation on the show; and finds true love.

Michelle Pfeiffer in Hairspray 2007 (New Line)

Shankman directs with such zest and bounce that my critical skills almost got sweep away. None of the songs are particularly memorable but they are staged with such plucky spirit that you feel as though Nikki Blonsky is channeling Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland simultaneously. Shankman embraces rather than fights the klunky movie musical conventions. He gives us kids singing and dancing on the streets, on buses, in their bedroomsany where and everywhere. And they're always moving so we feel like theres a constant forward momentum pulling us along.

The production values--from snazzy vintage costumes to kitschy sets--radiate cheery effervescence as well. It's all far more glossy than Waters' original suburban tale (I miss the cardboard sets of Waters Corny Collins show) but Shankman gives everything that artificial MGM musical sheen so at least it all fits together stylistically. The end result is a film that feels like a good translation of a Broadway play to film. Shankman reinvents and opens it up enough so that it doesn't feel like a static, filmed stage production.

Yet despite the bright buoyant feeling the film engenders, there are a few things that really irked me. For one, this Balitmore tale that opens with the song Good Morning Baltimore was shot in Toronto. As my son would say, that aint right. Next there's something weird about all the Hollywood celebrities and the fact that this outsiders tale has been brought to the screen by so many insiders. Michelle Pfeiffer is funny as the calculating and malicious Velma Von Tussle. Yet she looks so good and her clothes are so gorgeous that she seems to have dropped in from another movie. In contrast her counterpart in Waterss film was Deborah Harry who had a ridiculous Marie Antoinette hair do (more of a hair dont), wacky clothes and a crass Baltimore accent. Harry may have been a celebrity but she also had a punky sensibility and was willing to get down and dirty for the part.

John Travolta and Nikki Blonsky in Hairspray (New Line)

Which leads me to the third pointwho the heck thought of casting John Travolta as Edna Turnblad! Every time he comes on the scene all you can think about is "Oh my god thats John Travolta in drag and in a fat suit!" Its stunt casting thats so distracting that it pulls you out of the story. Now Waters has done his share of stunt casting but it was always slyly appropriate--like having Pia Zadora and The Cars' Ric Ocasek as a Beatnik chick and cat. That was funny. As for Edna Turnblad, Divine owned role and was sheer perfection. No one could fill his shoes. On stage, Harvey Fierstein at least had the right sense of fun and a ridiculously gravely voice that he refused to cover up even though he was playing a woman. The problem with Travolta is that he's a handsome Hollywood celebrity trying to milk laughs from the fact that he's making himself fat and female. There's a constant sense of wink-wink-nudge-nudge look at me Im acting and Im getting laughs from frumping my gorgeous self up.

And to make matters worse, the film changes Ednas character from the Waters film so that shes some kind of agoraphobic housewife who hasnt come out of her home in ten years because she thinks shes fat. Travolta's Edna is crushed by the opinion of the sexy Velma who implies that she's overweight and shouldnt be eating an ice cream sundae. Youd never catch Divine crying over her weight or wondering what some establishment slut thought of her. Hell no. Theres nothing greater than the scene in Waters film where Divine's plus size Edna and daughter Tracy (played by Ricki Lake) go strutting down the Baltimore street in their Hefty Hideaway frocks. Theres no sense of apology in them--they're big, bold and beautiful--and they boast a refreshing bravado that only an outsider thumping his/her nose at the establishment can muster. Plus Travolta's face looks like its been pulled tightly back so he looks oddly younger than usual, and he has a strange accent that often makes him sound like Mike Myers. All in all, this Edna is a disappointment.

Christopher Walken (New Line)

But Hairspray does boast some acting strengths. The short and round Blonsky is a dynamo that bounds across the screen like that Eveready bunny--she just keeps going and going and going. Queen Latifah is a bit too refined as Motormouth Maybelle; she needed to cut loose a little more. Yet she's always enjoyable as is Christopher Walken as Tracy's dad. Walken shares a dance number with Travolta, and Walken dancing is always a delight. As the youngsters, Zac Efron and Elijah Kelley score well while James Marsden is all plastic smiles as Corny Collins. Jerry Stiller--Mr. Turnblad in the 1988 film--returns here to play Mr. Pinky of the Hefty Hideaway.

Shankman does a solid job keeping the energy levels up and the pace breezy. He doesn't have the satiric edge that Waters had nor the flair to avoid cliches when dealing with race issues. Plus he'd never do something as hilariously twisted as the zit-popping scene of the original. Shankman plays it safe but keeps the proceedings fun.

Hairspray (rated PG for language, some suggestive content and brief teen smoking) is fun despite its flaws. And I would pay to see any film that allows Christopher Walken to dance and in a tux no less.

Companion viewing: Hairspray (1988), Cry Baby, Starstruck, Pink Flamingos, Pecker, Pennies From Heaven (Walken does a strip tease)

Watch Christopher Walken dance to Fatboy Slims Weapons of Choice , if this doesnt put a smile on your face youve had too much plastic surgery.

Check out John Waters no smoking in this theater spot ."