What with all the racial tensions, weight issues and societal crises, Hairspray was the most fun I’ve had in a theater in a very long time. It is virtually impossible to watch this newest film version of Hairspray without laughing and wanting to get up and dance. In fact, if you don't crack a smile at least once during this super high-energy, teenage fun fest, I might wonder if your heart were still beating at all.
This rock-n-roll high school musical is full of the energy and tensions of the 1960s when hair was shellacked high and dancing was a daily teenage pastime. As a high school kid in Baltimore, the "pleasantly plump" Tracy Turnblad (Nikki Blonsky) longs to be on The Corny Collins show, a local TV dance program, but when she goes to the open try-outs with her loyal friend Penny (the lollipop-sucking jail bait Amanda Bynes), she's cruelly turned away by the evil station manager, Velma Von Tussle (Michelle Pfeiffer) and her equally heinous daughter Amber (Brittany Snow). Back at school Tracy gets sent to detention — which seems to double as a kind of night club — and befriends a bunch of black kids, in particular the smooth Seaweed (Elijah Kelley) who teaches Tracy some fancy new moves. That's certainly not the end, though, so read more
Forcing her way onto The Corny Collins show one afternoon, Tracy catches the eye of Corny himself (James Marsden) with her newfound moves and is placed as a regular on the show. Once there, Tracy attempts to get The Corny Collins show to be integrated all the time, rather than the one day a week when black kids are allowed to dance. This leads to a heap of trouble with the station — and then with the police. The whole thing ends, of course, with a spectacular ensemble number. Through it all, there are a lot of songs about weight, and lessons about race relations abound. Yet all these heavy issues (no pun intended) are made lighter by all the smiling, bopping and belting, in classic musical fashion.
The one (gigantic) sore spot in this whole outrageous production is John Travolta playing Tracy's mother, Edna Turnblad. In this role, Travolta is constantly giving the audience a chubby-eyed wink, so uncomfortable and outlandish in his fat suit and muumuus it made me squirm in uneasiness for him. He makes a mockery of the role of Edna and therefore of all of Edna's issues: her insecurities and eventual triumphant ownership over her weight are rendered meaningless in Travolta's performance. He comes across as a buffoonish caricature not of a large woman, but of a human being in general.
Aside from that, the rest of the cast is delicious. Nikki Blonsky has an infectious light-filled presence onscreen and a great, big voice to go with it. Zac Efron is completely adorable as — big stretch here — a somewhat narcissistic teen idol. Queen Latifah does her relaxed-yet-powerful thing, James Marsden is magnificently cheesy as Corny, and Allison Janney is hilarious as Penny's crazy, Bible-thumping mother. Amanda Bynes herself gets many of the funniest lines in the movie, and supplies the appropriate amount of cutesy naivete. Hopefully you'll get a lively audience like I did, one that cheers, laughs and claps as though the actors are there to hear the praise. This really is a fantastic musical, presenting real issues while simultaneously providing a raucous and heartfelt good time.