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Hairspray a musically entertaining delight '..fun, giddy..exuberant'
Hairspray a musically entertaining delight '..fun, giddy..exuberant'
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

Hairspray is one of the most shockingly entertaining films I've had the pleasure to see this Summer. I say shockingly because, for one thing, even though I've never seen the 2002 Broadway musical version I expected to loathe this one almost on principal. For another, I did not remotely anticipate that Adam Shankman, the man responsible for unleashing odious dreck like Bringing Down the House and The Pacifier on an unsuspecting world, would be able to make a motion picture I'd openly admit to enjoying. It didn't help matters that the whole thing is a remake of one of cult filmmaker John Waters' absolute best, his 1988 original featuring Rikki Lake and Gay icon Divine a film impossible to forget and easy to fall in love with. Added together, Shankman and company had more strikes against them then an unlucky Angels batter facing off against Felix Hernandez, and the only real question was why I was going to the 5th Ave Theater to review this thing in the first place.

The why is because it is my job, and thank goodness for that because I don't recall the last time I walked out of a movie with such a dynamic spring to my step and as dazzling a smile beaming across my face. Hairspray is fun, giddy and unabashedly exuberant entertainment fit for the entire family. While far from perfect, the plusses are so wondrously sensational it is almost difficult to remember what the flaws actually are, Shankman and his talented group of actors crafting such an intoxicating musical spell I actually can't wait to see the darn thing again.

For fans of either of the previous incarnations, the basic storyline hasn't changed. Perky and energetic (if a tad overweight) Baltimore teenager Tracy Turnblad (Nikki Blonsky) dreams of being one of the dancers on her favorite local daytime television program "The Corny Collins Show." Her over-protective plus-size mother Edna (John Travolta) doesn't want to see her little darling hurt and urges her not to try out, while father Wilbur (Christopher Walken) takes a more lighthearted point of view telling his daughter, "You've got to think big to be big."

After wowing Corny (James Marsden) at her school dance, Tracy ends up winning a spot on the show much to the chagrin of scheming producer (and one-time Baltimore pageant queen) Velma Von Tussle (a ferocious Michelle Pfeiffer) and her prissy-princess of a daughter Amber (Brittany Snow). With the blonde duo trying to find a way to erase the newbie's sudden popularity, the ebullient dancing dynamo is falling head over heels for the show's teenage hottie Link Larkin (Zac Efron) and inching up in the standings to win the coveted title of Miss Teenage Hairspray.

But along with fame Tracy also comes to discover the world doesn't share her all-inclusive view of how it should be. Best friend Penny Pingleton (Amanda Bynes) has to keep her romantic interest in the sexy Seaweed (Elijah Kelley) secret because he's Black, while Motormouth Maybelle (Queen Latifah) - host of "Negro Day" - is devastated when Velma axes her and her teenage team from the television schedule. But Tracy won't let any of this inequality go unanswered, and with her friends by her side she's going to sing and dance so proudly all of Baltimore is going to hear her song for integration whether they like it or not. Shankman tends to force-feed the cheerfulness and sunshiny atmosphere from time to time, and it goes without saying the film exists in a reality someplace far removed from the one we all actually live in. There is a faux sincerity everything impossible to miss, and I'd be lying if there weren't a moment or two where the sheer volume of all of this borders on becoming annoying.

Yet miraculously this does not happen. The cast, led by enchanting 18-year-old newcomer Blonsky, is a revelation. The majority of them bring so much melodic vitality to their characters I found myself time and again wanting to stand up in the aisles of the theater and dance right along with them. While I wouldn't ever call any of their portraits award-worthy, they're still pretty extraordinary, everyone working so well together it becomes hard to imagine anyone but them inhabiting this collection of timeless characters. Granted, there is one exception, and it isn't for the reasons you're thinking. Travolta's Scientology religion is worrisome for a lot of people; sorry to say I just don't happen to be one of them. But I do have a problem with the actor in the film. Not because he isn't good (he's excellent), it is how he chooses to play the character that vexes me.

Travolta valiantly attempts to make Edna a real woman, a flesh and blood embodiment of a 1960's housewife timidly unsure of her place in the world. It's an interesting take, but I can't help but think Divine's original 1988 interpretation (and, I'd hazard to guess, Harvey Fierstein's award-winning Broadway work, too) was a gloriously over the top gaily absurdist aria much more in the line with Water's deliciously slanted point of view.

The satire in Hairspray isn't meant to be subtle, and Divine's gloriously acidic and craftily campy performance essentially guaranteed that was going to be the case. Not so, here, Travolta seemingly the only one in the entire cast attempting some form of Method realism the other actors thankfully eschew. This is easily forgiven, mostly because the energetic spark running through the rest of this thing is so hypnotic virtually nothing can derail its all-around fabulousness. From Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman's inspired musical score and songs, to David Gropman's sparkling production design, to Bojan Bazelli's crackerjack cinematography, everything here works in such bravura rapture I admit to being clearly awed. In the end, walking out of the 5th Avenue (the very same place the musical had its original pre-Broadway premier) I couldn't help but be thrilled by what I had just had the pleasure to witness. Shankman took a theatrical smash, opened it up a little, made it a bit more cinematic and cast it to near-perfection. He also took a cult classic unafraid to draw a little blood and made sure his version had a pair of razor sharp fangs of its own. He made a movie that wondrously stands on its marvelously amusing own but also pays pleasantly harmonious homage to the earlier versions which came before it.

In other words, he made a great film, and as far as I'm concerned that makes this Hairspray a song worth celebrating.

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