I've never reviewed a John Waters' movie and I don't have to here. Though Hairspray in its original form was the brainchild of the demented maestro of off-color, subversive cinema, the 2007 incarnation is pure mainstream entertainment. Sure, the tale of a rotund (but oh-so-cute and cuddly) teenage girl (Nikki Blonsky as Tracy Turnblad) in civil rights era Baltimore who dreams of shaking her caboose on a local television dance show is not the stuff of which popular tastes are made, but it's nothing a few catchy tunes and energetic dancing can't fix, right?
One's enjoyment of Adam Shankman's motion picture will largely depend on one's tolerance for conflict-less, feel good musicals. The script is witty, light, breezy. The cinematography is fresh and bright. The cast is stellar and the songs are mainly rocking...but that didn't prevent my looking at my watch and kind of hoping the enjoyable experience of Hairspray would come to an abrupt end. That might say more about me and my curmudgeonly demeanor than the film's merits. Perhaps my threshold for fluffy, goofy, song and dance numbers is not what it once was. Perhaps the laughs - mostly courtesy of Christopher Walken as Tracy's father and his notoriously deadpan delivery, and Amanda Bynes as the stalwart, sheltered best pal, Penny - come only sparingly. Perhaps it is that John Travolta as Edna Turnblad is so excellent in his seamless portrayal of an obese overbearing mom that the novelty of the performance wears off almost immediately. In the end, I think Hairspray suffers because it treats its serious issues lightly and its preposterous issues seriously.
How deeply can one care about an overweight girl who (implausibly) lives her insipid aspiration to dance. The areas of interest to a thoughtful filmgoer are the shut in mother and the relationship she shares with her boisterous daughter, and the issues of race and prejudice. Discrimination based on skin pigmentation plays a significant role in the movie as the black "detention" kids are only permitted to dance on the Corny Collins Show on Negro Day (and never near or with the white kids). America (or Baltimore) is not ready for mixing races according to the TV station owner, played with campy malice by Michelle Pfeiffer.
Meanwhile, the film notes that times, they are a changing, and the accepted definitions of spouse, child, neighbor, and color are going to need reexamining.
For Edna this means leaving the house, assuming the role of her daughter's cutthroat agent, and generally becoming a more laid back parent. This is shown in contrast to Penny's mom who is vilified as a religious fanatic and therefore deserves to be disobeyed. To the kids Tracy, Penny and local dreamboat Link (played by Zac Efron who, damn it to hell, has movie-star charisma) joining the revolution means associating with the detention kids, marching with them , and, in Penny's case locking lips with a suave black teenager on television.
Despite a solemn and soulfully delivered ballad about lights at the end of tunnels and what not by Queen Latifah, who portrays the den mother of thee young, black community, all race related issues are treated with kid gloves, and the associated sentiments ring hollow.
The concentration of the film rather, is Tracy and her epic quest to groove. Granted, the director is aware of the irony, but that doesn't make the material any more watchable.
Hairspray is the type of movie where an experienced critic and a fourteen year old girl would regularly apply the same one word description. Both would sincerely use the word and articulate it under the classic definition. Hairspray is a "fun" movie. It intends to be fun and it executes FUN! The fourteen year old girl in her purity of spirit wields the world as if it were the most enlightened object of creation. To her, fun is an end unto itself. The citric, while loathe to relinquish his humanity and affability, secretly disdains fun. Musicals are difficult to endure if cheery; he believes it better to swallow that pill in the dark form of Chicago, Moulin Rouge, or the upcoming Sweeney Todd. But studios don't make movies to please the critics (and – as an aside - neither does John Waters). Studios make big movies like Hairspray to please the masses. So....if you are the masses...go ahead! See Hairspray! Have Fun!