The adaptation of the stage musical energetically captures the look and feel of the early '60s.
The adaptation of the stage musical energetically captures the look and feel of the early '60s. (By David James -- New Line Cinema)
By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 20, 2007

Boy, can that 380-pound woman bust a move! Oh, wait, of course that's no distaff Leviathan shimmying her way down a Baltimore byway. That's the lithe-even-in-latex John Travolta, portraying economy-size Edna Turnblad in a genially peppy new movie version of the musical "Hairspray."

Although mountains of rubbery artificial flesh turn Travolta's facial features to virtually unreadable mush -- in girth and affect, he invites unfortunate comparisons to Miss Piggy -- his performance acquires grace whenever Marc Shaiman's music cranks up and he gets to shake that ample booty. And particularly when he's being partnered by another great, slithery song-and-dance man, Christopher Walken, in a sly turn as Edna's ever-loving husband, Wilbur.

You have to admire the guts it took for a star of Travolta's caliber to accept the challenge of Edna, the agoraphobic laundress whose plus-size daughter sets the world straight about being different -- and does her part to tear down the barriers of racial injustice in the Baltimore of 1962. It's too bad, then, that on this occasion, the cosmetic stunt draws too much attention to itself: The audience never quite gets over the spectacle of a nearly animatronic Travolta, in a fat suit and a Baltimore accent so thick you could serve it at Obrycki's Crab House. So the Edna we mostly get is sort of a plastic one.

The real star of this "Hairspray" -- a screen adaptation of the 2002 Broadway musical that itself was a variation on John Waters's 1988 cult classic -- is a guy you probably have never heard of: Adam Shankman, the film's director-choreographer. His staging of Shaiman and Scott Wittman's ardent and irreverent rock-and-roll numbers teases the screen with the brash colors of youth and hope. And the actors playing the teenyboppers -- from Elijah Kelley's Seaweed to Nikki Blonsky's Tracy Turnblad -- commandingly bottle the adolescent exuberance that is Shankman's ace in the hole.

With "Hairspray's" somewhat overbearing preachifying -- Can't we all just get along? seems the banal refrain -- the stage version has always been guilty of way too much sanctimony. It also infects this movie, which sometimes comes across as little more than "Grease" with a conscience. In "Hairspray," the producer of the local "American Bandstand"-style TV show, who bars white kids from boogeying with black teens on the program, is portrayed as bordering on satanic. Thank, however, the higher power that bestowed the role on Michelle Pfeiffer, who is so photogenic (and talented) she can make this platinum-blond bigot bearable, and even funny.

The film follows non-threateningly rebellious Tracy as she earns a spot as a teen dancer on TV, attracts the unlikely interest of the cutest boy on the set (Zac Efron) and inspires the black community to stage a march on the television station. But the musical is of two comic minds: campiness and sentimentality. Shankman, in concert with screenwriter Leslie Dixon, tones down the musical's campier strains. To wit, a number set in a women's jail, "The Big Dollhouse," has been cut, along with "It Takes Two" and the catchy "Mama, I'm a Big Girl Now." (A few less-than-memorable songs replace them.)

No doubt some of the changes helped in the necessary streamlining of the plot. The effect, however, intentionally or not, has been to water down some of the source material's gay sensibility. If you recall that the drag queen Divine played Edna in the Waters film, and that Harvey Fierstein originated the part on Broadway, then you might conclude Travolta's Edna relies too much on makeup and not enough on the special mix of wit, joy and inspiration some men summon in playing a maternal creature.

As you might expect, the film evokes the look and feel of the early '60s much more satisfyingly than the stage musical. And Shankman takes advantage of the collective American experience of public high school life to anchor "Hairspray" in a comic reality. For a splendid "I Can Hear the Bells" -- Tracy's song of sexuality astir -- the camera follows the exceedingly likable Blonsky through the hallways and into various classrooms of Patterson Park High. Similarly, Seaweed's rousing "Run and Tell That!" is choreographed in kinetic "West Side Story" fashion on the school grounds, in the streets and on a school bus.

Queen Latifah, after some rather flat screen performances -- including an overpraised stint in "Chicago" -- finally seems to open up for the camera here. She is on hand as Motormouth Maybelle, an aspiring TV personality energized by Tracy and her plan to integrate "The Corny Collins Show." Amanda Bynes makes for a dishily mischievous Penny, Tracy's best friend, and Allison Janney offers a good-sport performance as a moralizing parental control freak. (Keep your eyes peeled, too, for Waters in a funny cameo.)

Shankman wisely has the kids dance, and dance some more. After Tracy is unjustly sent to the detention room, she finds it filled with African American kids grooving to their own music, and she garners instant respect when she reveals how well she can keep up with them. In the racially divided Baltimore that the movie depicts, music is the equalizer. When "Hairspray" is twisting and shouting and swiveling its hips, you can even dare to believe a great society is waiting in the wings.

Hairspray (107 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG for language and some suggestive content.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company