'Hairspray' is one happy romp

Posted: July 20, 2007

That's not aerosol in those cans of coif product. It must be helium. What else accounts for Hairspray, so bouncy, so bubbly, so buoyant?

This movie musical about the plus-sized white girl who shakes her way onto a segregated teen dance show and brings black high-schoolers with her is a laughing gas.

In 1962 Baltimore, where spirits and hairdos soar, the beat is on and outsiders are In. The girl with the highest hair and hopes is Tracy Turnblad (newcomer Nikki Blonsky), observer of three commandments: Gotta-sing, gotta-dance, gotta integrate. Like Dreamgirls and Talk to Me, Hairspray is the civil rights era as told through song.

The original Hairspray, John Waters' cheeky 1988 film, was a subversive ode celebrating difference. It begot the 2002 Broadway songfest chronicling the ascendance of teen culture.

For the new film in which the cross-dressing John Travolta appears as Tracy's XXL-sized mother, Edna, Adam Shankman plays it relatively straight. His is a generation-gap musical where sunny teens (led by blissful Blonsky and Amanda Bynes) inspire their occasionally shady elders (a miscast Travolta, but well-cast Chris Walken, Queen Latifah and Michelle Pfeiffer) to shed their prejudices and inhibitions.

Shankman, the choreographer-turned- director responsible for the odious Cheaper by the Dozen II as well as the guilty pleasure Bringing Down the House, cuts this particolored material so that it's a perfect fit.

The result is a rocking, rollicking crowd-pleaser that shakes a tailfeather to Marc Shaiman's music and smiles along with Scott Wittman's lyrics, from "Good Morning, Baltimore," where Tracy greets the day, to "You Can't Stop the Beat," the raise-the-roof finale.

As played by Blonsky, she of the fireplug proportions and the sparkplug energy, Tracy challenges TV station manager Velma Van Tussle (wickedly funny Pfeiffer) to win a spot on The Corny Collins Show, Baltimore's answer to American Bandstand. (Corny, played by James Marsden, is a revelation. But then, that could be said about virtually everyone in the ensemble.)

Tracy is colorblind, Velma snowblind: She sees only white. She thinks that audiences (and advertisers) like their teen idols white like the twinkling, winking Link (Zac Efron, best known as Troy in High School Musical) and Velma's untalented daughter, Amber (Brittany Snow). But Tracy cannot be denied.

At first, the teen's obliviousness to racism and size-ism shields her from the poison darts of Velma's bigotry. But when Tracy befriends black students (including Seaweed, the terrific Elijah Kelley who stops the movie with "Run and Tell That") - and picks up some new dance moves - she becomes a target of discrimination. And as a result joins forces with black DJ Motormouth Maybelle (uproarious Queen Latifah) to protest the station's discrimination.

Tracy does the stomp, the shake, the locomotion, and even gets her agoraphobic mother, Edna (Travolta), as shy as her daughter is gregarious, out of the house.

In the footloose and freewheeling Hairspray ensemble where almost everyone is a standout, Travolta is the one misstep.

In his fat suit and harder-than-a-helmet bouffant, Travolta resembles the Sta-Puft Marshmallow Man in a housedress. (His weird attempt at the Bawlmur dialect makes him sound like Mike Myers as Dr. Evil.) Travolta apparently modeled his lumbering but dainty performance on one of those tutu-wearing hippos from Fantasia.

Thankfully, Travolta's Edna doesn't bring down this popsicle-hued dance party. Hairspray, which begins as a caricature of separate-but-unequal America, ends in a star-spangled checkerboard. And everybody's dancing. Even the audience.


Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 or crickey@phillynews.com. Read her blog, "Flickgrrl," at http://go.philly.com/flickgrrl/.

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