Hairspray (New Line, PG)

 

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So, I know everyone is wondering—what about Travolta? He is the only member of the cast that I really did not love in the role. More than anything, he was distracting.

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When I first heard they'd made a Broadway musical out of the 1988 John Waters cult classic Hairspray, I was skeptical. First of all, as a long time fan of musical theater, I have a hard time understanding the need to constantly make musicals out of non-musical films (Legally Blonde anyone?), particularly when its one of my favorite films of all time. But in February, on a business trip to New York, a colleague and I caught the show on Broadway. I went reluctantly—it was the only show we could get tickets to last minute. We sat in single seats, in the seventh row; and in that intimate theater, my preconceived notions were blown away. I loved it.film_hairspray_sm

Five months later, reading about the upcoming film version of the Broadway musical, I was again skeptical. It's one thing to make a musical out of a movie, but to make a movie out of a musical out of a movie…well. The fact that John Waters himself had a hand in writing the screenplay (and even has a brief cameo as a flasher), gave me some hope. Once again, I was pleasantly surprised.

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Hairspray is a first-rate movie musical with an A-list cast, infectious songs, beautiful costumes and art direction, and a consistently powerful message about tolerance, racial equality and finding the beauty on the inside of people and not just the outside. With all these heavy themes, you'd think it would become preachy or overly sentimental; however, this film, like the original, never takes itself too seriously.

Set in 1962 Baltimore, Hairspray is the story of a pleasantly plump, dance-crazy teenager, Tracy Turnblad (played to perfection by newcomer Nikki Blonsky), whose only dream is to show her moves on the local teen dance TV program, "The Corny Collins Show" and dance with its heartthrob, Link Larkin (High School Musical's Zac Efron). With a little help from her quirky best friend, Penny Pingleton (the adorable Amanda Bynes), she manages to get a regular slot on the show, much to the dismay of star dancer Amber Von Tussle (Brittany Snow) and her washed up pageant queen mother, Velma (Michelle Pfeiffer), also the show's producer.

Along with her newfound friends from Motormouth Maybelle's (Queen Latifah) record store, her larger-than-life mother, Edna (John Travolta), and her eccentric father, Wilbur (Christopher Walken), Tracy goes on a crusade to integrate the Corny Collins Show and create acceptance for "people who are different."

Blonsky is the true standout in the lead role of Tracy. This is her first film role and she plays it like she was born to do it. She even bears a striking resemblance to a young Rikki Lake, who originated the role in Waters' version. Fans of the original get a glimpse of a more mature, slimmer Lake in the film as well, as a talent scout for the William Morris Agency.

The supporting cast is also incredible; in particular, Walken, Pfeiffer and Queen Latifah, who once again proves she has the one-two punch as an incredible singer and actress, and is, as she sings in the film, "Big, blonde and beautiful." In addition to these veterans of the stage and screen, the young cast members display an amazing amount of talent as well. Efron is charming as can be as Larkin, and James Marsden plays a funny yet dreamy host as Corny Collins.

So, I know everyone is wondering—what about Travolta? This is tough, as he is the only member of the cast that I really did not love in the role. More than anything, he was distracting. The mounds of makeup, prosthetic fat suit and special effects retouching mad it actually somewhat difficult to look at him.

The problem with this, for me anyway, is that it took away what was actually funny about this character to begin with-she's a large, gruff man in a dress. Baltimore drag queen Divine originated the role and was just that. He made no attempt to make Edna glamorous or shapely or pretty, or hide the maleness of his voice when playing her. Same with Harvey Firestein, who earned a Tony Award as Edna in the original Broadway cast. In attempting to make Edna too much of a "real woman," Travolta loses what is most humorous and endearing about her.

What Travolta lacks, however, the rest of the cast makes up for tenfold. This film had me grinning from ear to ear, laughing out loud and tapping my feet from the second it started until the credits rolled. In a world that is filled with a daily stream of bad news, it's nice to escape and watch a true "feel-good" movie. The fantastic closing number, "You Can't Stop the Beat," was as dynamic on screen as on stage, and I was still singing it in my head, out to my car and all the way home. | Amy Burger

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