Did John Waters sell out? Or did our ever-more-metrosexual age merely render him irrelevant? Certainly long before Hairspray took up residence on the Great White Way in 2002, Waters had abdicated his throne as America’s elder statesman of underground smut in favor of a more lucrative career as a neutered mainstream pop-culture icon, readily available for awards-show emcee gigs and sitcom guest appearances. Yet, somehow, Hairspray on Broadway seemed to seal the deal, with its further taming of Waters’s already pretty tame 1988 movie, a gently satiric tale of plus-sized Baltimore teen Tracy Turnblad, who becomes an unlikely instigator of integration on an American Bandstand–like TV show at the end of the Jim Crow era. Like Mel Brooks before him, Waters was fully gentrified now, and getting very rich as a result—thus, from shit-eating to shit-eating grin.
In truth, the stage version of Hairspray was easily the best of the recent Broadway behemoths, even if it buried Waters’s skewering of WASP panic in the face of black progress beneath thick layers of tongue-in-cheek nostalgia. You could easily walk away from the musical Hairspray thinking that racial segregation in the early ’60s wasn’t anything that a little blues-infused doo-wop couldn’t cure, but the show was mercifully absent the labored slapstick of The Producers and the ponderous self-seriousness of Wicked. More importantly, the songs were pretty darn good—a dozen and a half clever, up-tempo numbers styled by composer-lyricist Marc Shaiman and co-lyricist Scott Wittman after the Top 40 hits of the era (the Angels, Jackie Wilson, et al.). And unlike the songs from Dreamgirls (which charts roughly the same period in American music history from the other side of the race divide), Shaiman and Wittman’s featured an abundance of good old-fashioned soul.
Hairspray the movie musical has been conceived and executed as a faithful record of the stage version, but that’s all it is—a recording. Registering somewhere between Susan Stroman (who made the abominable 2005 film version of The Producers) and Bob Fosse on the scale of choreographers turned directors, Adam Shankman shows a lot of know-how when it comes to the placement and movement of human bodies, but considerably less when the object at hand is a movie camera. No, Shankman doesn’t slice-and-dice his musical numbers into MTV oblivion (à la Chicago). But it’s evident right from the opening song, “Good Morning Baltimore,” in which Tracy (played here by perky newcomer Nikki Blonsky) rolls out of bed and into a pastel universe of winos, streakers, and sewer rats—that the movie is visually flat: not pasty and garish in the Waters signature style, but merely serviceable and competent in the worst tradition of Hollywood “professionalism.”
Shankman has gotten Hairspray on the screen, all right, but he hasn’t rethought the material in cinematic terms (the way, for example, that Frank Oz did when adapting the similarly stylized Little Shop of Horrors). The result is an odd hybrid that lacks both the rambunctious energy of a live performance and the expressionistic pull of a great movie musical. That leaves the film to survive on its auditory pleasures and the novelty of its stunt casting, most notably John Travolta as Tracy’s plus-plus-sized mom, Edna—a role originated (in the 1988 film) by longtime Waters muse Divine and subsequently inhabited (onstage) by such queer culture doyennes as Harvey Fierstein and Bruce Vilanch. That most dandyish of ostensibly straight contemporary screen performers, Travolta seemed like sound casting—yet, given this primo opportunity to get his femme thing on, he’s oddly restrained in a part that calls for the grandiose. (I, for one, spent most of the movie trying to locate the inspiration for Travolta’s slurry, monotonous vocal inflection, until I pinpointed it as a misbegotten hybrid of Ed Sullivan and Homer Simpson.) Meanwhile, as the movie’s vampish villainess Velma Von Tussle, Michelle Pfeiffer plays all of her scenes with such shrill, white-rich-bitch intensity that, all of a sudden, Pfeiffer’s lengthy screen hiatus (this is her first live-action role since White Oleander in 2002) doesn’t seem to have been quite long enough.
Hairspray is far from an abject failure, but its only flashes of inspiration exist on the periphery, chiefly in Queen Latifah’s joyous performance as Motormouth Maybelle, hostess of the monthly “Negro Day” on the film’s Bandstand simulacrum, The Corny Collins Show; in Christopher Walken, too little seen as Tracy’s gadget-man dad, doing some elegant soft-shoe; and in Corny Collins himself, James Marsden, who’s so adept at playing period roles (here and in The Notebook) that you dread the thought of ever seeing him in another comic-book adaptation. Though much of the publicity surrounding Hairspray is bound to focus on the casting of tween pinup-du-jour Zac Efron as resident Collins heartthrob Link Larkin, it’s Marsden—sporting enough Brylcreem to deflect most forms of nuclear radiation, and flashing a Pepsodent smile that could guide ships to shore in a raging monsoon—who twinkles his baby blues until he seems the epitome of the virginal 1950s innocence to which Hairspray is, ultimately, a cockeyed adieu.