Bouncy and Shiny

â'Hairspray' is a joyful romp, even with Travolta

Movie Guru

by Andy Klein

It says something about the times we're living in that a John Waters filmâ"even the relatively user-friendly Hairspray â"could become a Broadway musical and now, under the direction of Adam Shankman, a movie musical as wellâ with a budget roughly 40 times the original.

The 1988 release was a watershed in Waters's career. The films with which he first made an impressionâ" Multiple Maniacs (1970), Pink Flamingos (1972), and others designed to enshrine â“bad tasteâ”â"helped create the â“midnight movieâ” phenomenon. His budgets grew slowly, and his work got slicker, until, with Hairspray , he broke through to a much broader audience. It was a John Waters film even your mother could loveâ at least if she could deal with matriarch Edna Turnblad being played by a flamboyantly gay, 300-pound guy in drag, i.e., Divine.

What seemed surprising at the time was how sweet the film was. Stripped of Waters's usual shock tactics, what became clear was a kind of benevolence lurking in his work; this was a director with a deep affection for even his tackiest characters.

The original Hairspray was sort of a quasi-musical itself, with rock'n'roll dance shows at its center. But most of the score comprised pre-existing pop tunes. Composer/lyricist Marc Shaiman (who co-wrote the songs for South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut ) and playwright/humorist Mark O'Donnell (whose Elementary Education is the funniest collection of its kind since S.J. Perelman passed from the earth)â"together with Thomas Meehan and Scott Wittmanâ"adapted the film into a hugely successful stage musical, which, in turn, is the basis for the new film.

The main promotional hook here is the casting of John Travolta as Edna, but, as in the original, this is a decidedly supporting part. Stepping into the role that made Rikki Lake a star 19 years ago, Nikki Blonsky plays protagonist Tracy Turnblad, a very comfortably padded teenager, circa 1962, who lives to dance. Edna, a laundress, disapproves of Tracy's burning ambition to become a regular on The Corny Collins Show , a local, American Bandstand -like TV program; but husband Wilbur (Christopher Walken) believes Tracy should follow her dream. (With Travolta and Walken as parents, it's no wonder Tracy can dance.)

In fact, Tracy gets the gig and becomes a sensation, winning the heart of Link Larkin (Zac Efron) and frustrating the romantic and professional aspirations of spoiled rich girl Amber von Tussel (Brittany Snow), whose mother (Michelle Pfeiffer) is the station manager. Intertwined with this is a plot about desegregation: Motormouth Maybelle (Queen Latifah) hosts the show's â“Negro Dayâ” once a month, but rebellious Tracy thinks the black kids should be part of the everyday program, even if it meansâ"gulp!â"black boys dancing with white girls.

This insane fear of mixing the races probably seems quaint today; in fact, it seemed quaint in 1988. But the racist characters in Hairspray , who may seem like over-the-top caricatures, are, if anything, toned down from the reality of the time. For perspective, consider this: As late as 1968, there was a panic in the network boardrooms when British singer Petula Clark spontaneously touched the arm of Harry Belafonte for a few seconds on a TV special.

As a general rule, musicals tend to be less realistic in tone than their source material, which makes sense, what with people bursting into song, accompanied by an invisible orchestra, while walking down the street. But, in this case, the opposite is true. The characters and the tone in Shankman's film are not as cartoonishly exaggerated as in Waters'sâ with one crucial, highly problematic, exception: Travolta's performance is so arch that it makes Divine's look like kitchen-sink realism.

While everyone else is (relatively speaking) underplaying, Travolta is overplaying. When Divine did Edna, it was conceivable that viewers might temporarily forget they were watching a man. Travolta is a good actor and a sometimes great movie star, but his â“stunt castingâ” is apparent at every second: You're not only always aware that he's a man; you're always aware that he's Travolta.

This distraction is a function of both his celebrity and the unnatural way he acts here. Swaddled in his fat suit, talking in a contrived high voice, and gesturing in a manner better categorized as â“effeminateâ” than â“feminine,â” he seems to be constantly winking at us, reminding us that he's a â“realâ” man, just playing at being in dragâ"unlike Divine, who was long since at home playing women.

Luckily, the rest of the casting is great. Bynes is perfect as Tracy's slightly ditzy friend, and Motormouth Maybelle might as well have been written for Latifah. Rewatching the Waters film, it's striking to see how much Latifah's natural presentation resembles that of the late, great Ruth Brown, for whom the part probably was written.

With Blonsky really at the center of the story, the Travolta problem isn't enough to dampen the joyous tone.

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Small, Angry Geek

Disarmingly cuddly yet gloriously acerbic, Patton Oswalt is certainly one of the best stand-ups working today. His choice of material has gotten him booed off the stage in both San Francisco and Pittsburgh for trashing hippies and the current Presidential regime, respectively. His supporting presence on the sitcom King of Queens (and now the starring voice role in the Pixar film Ratatouille ) has shocked families who go out expecting kid-friendly patter only to encounter bits about abortion and elderly childbirth that are definitely not polite. His second comedy disc mixes topical observations (perhaps Oswalt is currently best known for his rant against KFC's Famous Bowls) and more timeless material touching on societal absurdities, the creative spark, and the strange passions of humanity. All of this and more can be seen and heard on his new comedy CD (with a bonus DVD) titled Werewolves and Lollipops (Sub Pop).

Though Oswalt is clearly proud of his geek pedigree, he sharply lets that be only one of the filters through which he works. Perhaps bits like â“At Midnight I Will Kill George Lucas With a Shovelâ” will be funnier for geeks, but they're still funny, regardless, because the routine's best punch-lines only use Star Wars as a jumping-off point. And his dismantling of the Red State/Blue State division via a Cirque Du Soleil concert is exemplary. Oswalt is a writer first and a performer second, and his delight at stringing together the poetic with the vulgar clearly elevates him a step above most of his contemporaries in Chuckle Huts across the world.

The real treat of this new release is the bonus DVD of a set Oswalt performed at Athens, Ga.'s 40 Watt club shortly before he recorded the CD over two nights in Austin, Tex. Oswalt's always-engaging audience conversations, this time featuring a dude in the crowd who is urinated upon by another dude in the crowd (and, speaking as someone who attended the show, it's not a set-up). The post-modern comparison to the fruit-smashing Gallagher is not lost on the comedian, and he soon continues his set with aplomb. â" Paul Lewis


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