Directed by: Adam Shankman
Premise: Tracy, a plump teenager living in Baltimore in the early 1960s, dreams of becoming a regular dancer on a locally produced American Bandstand-style music show. Defying the odds, Tracy lands a spot and runs afoul of the station’s program director (Michelle Pfeiffer) when she advocates racial integration. This begins a movement to vindicate people of all shapes and races.
What Works: Hairspray is a lot of fun. The film includes a lot of sharp humor that goes by quickly, one joke or bit of innuendo piling on top of the other in ways that will make the film interesting to watch more than once. Many of the jokes take stabs at racial and gender issues of the 1960s in ways that edge toward political incorrectness without crossing over to be crude or exploitative. The design of Hairspray is also impressive, as it combines the staged look of a musical with the more realistic techniques and set designs of a contemporary feature film. Hairspray has nearly constant musical numbers that are performed with energy and gusto by the performers, especially newcomer Nikki Blonsky as Tracy, although she is a much better singer than actress. John Travolta, dressed in drag, stars as Tracy’s mother and he deserves some of the biggest acting kudos of the film. He sells the character without going to the silly extremes of men dressed as women in films like Robin Williams in Mrs. Doubtfire. Although Travolta is over the top in spots, so is the rest of the film and his performance evens out with the tone of the rest of the picture. In the quieter moments, Travolta really sells the mother and makes her relationship with Tracy one of the assets of the film.
What Doesn’t: The cinematography during the musical pieces is very static and uninteresting especially compared to the editing and camera work of contemporary musicals like Idlewild or Dreamgirls. The story is very thin and despite working with hot button issues like race relations, freedom of expression, and the tyranny of fashion, there is little of substance in the film. The film doesn’t risk mussing its hair by actually saying anything beyond easy affirmations of the values of diversity. The lack of any real substance hinders Hairspray from moving beyond popcorn entertainment and that is a shame since the film is so much fun.
Bottom Line: Hairspray is a nice, fun picture that seems destined to find a cult following. Stylistically and thematically, the picture has more in common with the musicals of the 1970s like Saturday Night Fever and Grease than it does with more recent films but it accomplishes its goals. The film is not very bold and the superficial treatment of serious issues does not provide the viewer with much to chew on, but in a summer that is so full of regurgitated formulas and sequels, Hairspray is a welcome film that will leave viewers happy.
Episode: #149 (July 22, 2007)