Perhaps the best thing one can say about Hairspray, the film version of the Tony-winning stage musical, is that no one in the cast stands out because everyone does. That's fortunate, because Adam Shankman's direction is pretty bad, and so is the editing, which chops up the musical numbers (choreographed by Shankman) into pieces so small, they leave you starving.
For a throwback musical, Hairspray doesn't reach back far enough: It was Fred Astaire who taught us to photograph dancers on film in full body, to allow viewers to appreciate their work. To be fair, many numbers in Hairspray move back and forth between multiple locations to balance and contrast its themes, jokes and story lines. Make that "story lines": Its plot is as thin as its leading ladies -- make that "ladies" -- are not. Still, if Rob Marshall could figure out how to film Chicago, then someone could have figured out Hairspray.
The saga of Hairspray began in 1988, when the filthy dirty cult director John Waters assaulted the mainstream with his original (and nonmusical) comedy, set in 1962 Baltimore, about a popular TV dance show and the hefty teen-age hoofer, Tracy Turnblad, who integrates it. For Waters, it was pure summer camp, with his muse, the enormous drag queen Divine (let us bow our heads), as Tracy's mother, Edna.
In 2002, that film became a stage musical, with Harvey Fierstein as Edna. Now, with the screen adaptation of that musical, it's John Travolta's turn to wear lipstick and a dress, plus a bit of a fat suit. (Travolta left his Tony Manero physique behind him decades ago.) He's fine here, dancing spryly, although he gives Edna a bizarre voice, part Southerner, part surfer dude.
Some of his co-stars go supernova in terms of their image. Michelle Pfeiffer, James Marsden and Christopher Walken play against their types, while gently parodying them, to sing and dance. Queen Latifah is a lovely presence, and Taylor Parks and Elijah Kelley, as two black kids fighting for a piece of the dance floor, are electric. As Tracy, newcomer Nikki Blonsky gets poured into super-tight outfits that accentuate, let's say, her plus-sized voluptuousness. I hope there's a career out there for her.
Waters' original film taught campy (but sincere) lessons about acceptance and freedom. This movie elevates them to an anthem: There's no kidding around here, or not much anyway. There are also no take-away songs, a phenomenon common to Broadway musicals lately. The best songs in Hairspray, like "Timeless to Me" and "Without Love," echo the '30s or Motown, and the music in general is postmodernly all over the place, with some Broadway standards and lots of faux rock 'n' roll.
Call it Bye Bye Birdie meets Little Shop of Horrors, with not quite enough of either. It's certainly entertaining, and it's good to have on film. But just as a movie is never as good as the book, you really do need to see this on a stage in three dimensions. Aab
Starts Fri., July 20.