I’ve never seen the original John Water’s version (I know, shame on me, right?), nor the Broadway version (how can you blame me, most Broadway sucks these days!) so I had no idea what to expect from this movie. My only knowledge was from the so-so trailer, that an overweight high school girl wants to be on a televised dance show. I wasn’t sure how to take this. It looked kind of dopey, but I found my foot moving with the rhythm of the music on more than one occasion.
There’s a reason why “Hairspray” is getting only the best reviews. It’s been assembled in such a way that there’s nothing anyone could dislike about it. There’s nothing in this film that in any way could possibly offend. It’s so sweet natured a film that you can almost taste the cotton candy. But is it a dopey musical, ala Bye, Bye Birdie?
In fact it’s the opposite. Clever satire beats at Hairspray’s charming center, and it’s the best kind of satire, the kind with a message. While the message is simple, the film believes in it so much that it’s invigorating. It’s like a child who you simply can’t argue with, because they speak the simplest, most untarnished truth. Within the first few moments of the film we’re set gently into Baltimore 1962. And we follow Tracy Turnblad, who seems to be the happiest high school girl on the planet, singing her way to school. She’s in her very own musical! None of the high school prejudices seem to bother her one way or the other. She’s true blue, a sign of the changing times. But it’s not going to classes that’s got her so excited, it’s what happens afterwards. The Corny Collin’s Show! A sort of local network cross between American Bandstand and the Mickey Mouse club, where only the best looking, white children can be seen, except for once a month on “Negro Day” when the local black youth population can come in and show those white boys and girls how to truly dance. Tracy desires so badly to be on the Collin’s show, she’s beside herself when one of the regular female dancers goes on a sudden leave of absence (“Oh, for about 9 months.”), and the show is going to hold open auditions. “Skip school” Corny advices. Tracy’s shy, overweight mother, played by a mush-mouthed John Travolta, doesn’t want her to, but her father, played by Christopher Walken (who makes me laugh even when he does nothing), tells her to follow her heart. So she does, and it’s squashed by the prejudiced manipulative Velma Von Tussle, played by a never aging Michelle Pfeiffer. Unfortunately even though she’s white, she’s still not perfectly thin. She receives a second helping of bad luck upon her return to class, when she’s given detention. But that might not be so bad as in detention she meets Seaweed and his group of African American friends. Inspired by their much hipper and sexier form of dancing – hip thrusts are not for the clean white kids – she manages to get the attention of the forward minded Corny himself and is put on the show, where her first declaration to the live tv audience is “to make every day Negro Day”.
And that’s the heart of the humor here, that even in their desire to better themselves they still can’t help but speak and act in that polished, prejudiced 60’s way; even though their energy bursts with sexual tension, they smile like the nicest virgins; even though the film takes place in the 60’s the filmmaker’s know enough when to mock the ignorance and when not to. There’s plenty of overweight jokes as well, and it’s handled so much better than the Farrelly Brothers did in Shallow Hal. They laugh at themselves, because they see themselves just as human as everyone else. There’s nothing P.C. about this film, but it gives a stronger message than any P.C. spouting loony out there. And even in it’s creepier and more sexually unhinged moments, it’s so insanely, innocently and knowingly goofy you can’t help but have a good time along with everyone else.
And there is plenty of sexual peek-a-booing here. It keeps that off the wall perverted vibe that Waters is best known for, who actually has the first big laugh in the film, and wraps it around the cuddly leading star Nikki Blonsky, who if she showed the slightest hesitation in anything that she did the film wouldn’t have worked. Instead she moves and shakes like the best of them, fully enveloping every raunchy side step as her innocuous emotional and sexual desires become a reality. Now it’s Hollywood’s turn to not just hand her the scripts with troubled over weight teens trying to overcome their insecurities, for as we see in this film neither she nor the character have any, but to give her a leading role in which weight isn’t seen as an issue. Given a few extra years she could have easily played any of the female characters in The Family Stone, without question or doubt. Let’s hope they have enough sense to not type cast her based on her physical weight.