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Hairspray: Familiar Waters

Latest version of camp classic remains peppy and rude


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In a summer boasting two movies derived from children's toys (Bratz, Transformers), and a remake of the same film (Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer), originality feels like the rarest of birds.

And now comes Hairspray, a movie whose provenance requires a sheet of graph paper to track. Director Adam Shankman's movie musical is based on the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical, which in turn was based on another movie, John Waters' 1988 camp classic. Waters' original was itself inspired by the purrs and wails of the vintage "race" music from the Flares and the Five Du-Tones that wallpapered the director's blue-collar bildungsroman.

Even the casting of this most recent permutation has an odd, second-generation feel. The original Hairspray featured Waters' ersatz male muse Divine as Edna Turnblad, a role now played by John Travolta, star of another kinetic high school musical set in the years of greasers and poodle skirts, Grease. His co-star is Michelle Pfeiffer, who appeared in 1982's Grease 2. The tangle of extra-filmic references is enough to make your head swim.

Set in 1962 Baltimore, Shankman's most significant carryover from Waters' sensibility is his celebration of the tawdry, low-life glamour of Waters' beloved, economically depressed port city, a land of "hons" and joke shops, excessively teased hair and frosted lipstick applied like cake batter.

Chirping like Sandra Dee, teenage Tracy Turnblad (Nikki Blonsky) emerges from her apartment above her mother Edna (Travolta) and father Wilbur's (Christopher Walken) joke shop in an opening musical homage to raunch that includes a friendly "how-do!" to garbage-picking rats and even the local flasher (Waters). The opening number is a parody of the musical tendency to put black censor bars on the sordid side of life.

But Tracy has a problem. After managing – despite her zaftig figure – to find a spot shaking it on her favorite afternoon TV dance program, "The Corny Collins Show," Tracy discovers that the program's "Negro Day," a token nod to the city's black population, has been shut down. The film's plot breaks down to an edgier battle – between racist whites such as station manager Velma Von Tussle (Pfeiffer) and checkerboard progressives – than the one between the Jets and the Sharks.

It's a sage juxtaposition, finding something inhibiting and backward about a 1950s owned by whitey repression expressed in Von Tussle's Douglas Sirkian lair and anticipating a 1960s where free expression, sensuality and progress are associated with "black."

Since his long-ago days of Pink Flamingos and Mondo Trasho, Waters has mellowed into a lovable elder statesman of sleaze, reincorporated like an ingrown hair back into a culture that might have once tweezed him out. This third-generation Hairspray is a reflection of that cultural drift. Where once Waters might have repulsed with his love of dog poop and penis humor, he now dwells in the land of Judd Apatow, Sacha Baron Cohen and the Farrelly brothers, always pushing the envelope of shock.

This newest Hairspray incarnation manages to be both peppy and rude in the right places, slipping in jokes about women in prison, venereal disease and the fetish appeal of chubby women – anything to goose the '50s repression represented by sunny teenage dance shows and segregation.

Hairspray is pleasingly frothy and often funny entertainment. In keeping with the logic of some of the best movie musicals, the film does most of its exposition via song, keeps dialogue to a minimum and moves things along at an infectiously perky, brisk clip, thanks to director Shankman's choreography chops.

One of the obvious disappointments of the new version is the absence of the under-the-radar soul tunes and dances like "The Roach" and "The Madison" that made Waters' version sizzle as an authentic homage to a lost time. Instead there are the sometimes lyrically clever but less musically engaging Broadway tunes penned by Marc Shaiman.

But that complaint is a mere quibble compared to the really unsatisfying translation of Waters' cruddy aesthetic in the miserably failed casting of John Travolta as Tracy's inflated mom. Where transvestite Divine was just another component in Waters' wonderful scuzzy tapestry, Travolta is a beady-eyed freak with a mouth full of marbles forming an incomprehensible accent and the kind of caricatured body that transforms bosomy, motherly softness into a malicious dart board. It is a tribute to either Walken's delicious perversity or his acting ability as Edna's husband that he manages to rake his eyes over Travolta in a latex big-mama suit with an expression of typically ravenous rapture.

Travolta joins the ranks of Eddie Murphy, Martin Lawrence and Tyler Perry in the distasteful current trend – far from Waters' crude but good-natured sensibility – of actors who adorn a female fat suit for hilarity's sake. But instead of the raucous, campy undercurrent of homage involved in gay men dressing in drag, in Hairspray Travolta dressing as a hefty Baltimore housewife seems to come from the same place as frat boys and Milton Berle: a straight guy's sense of hilarity at the fleshy absurdity of the female form and the fun of imitating it for a time.


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