Monday, July 23, 2007

Do's Drop In, Dept.

Yeah, so your sobsister caught the puh-reamer of the second film version of Hairspray Friday. (And here I'm racking my widdel brain to see if I can conjure up another instance of a non-musical film made into a musical play and back on film as a musical. Okay. Phantom of the Opera. Phew.) I'd seen the Broadway production in March and had been favorably impressed. Lotsa energy, lotsa toe-tappers, lotsa teevee second-tierers plugging holes in, like, the fifth cast of the show. I was not enthusiastic about seeing this movie, however. Four words: John Travolta in drag.

Brief synopsis for those as ain't seen the movie/play/movie: In 1962 B'more, plus-size dancing fool Tracy Turnblad dreams of appearing as a featured dancer on American Bandstand clone, The Corny Collins Show. Her double-plus-size mama is opposed, her lovable doofus dad supports Tracy's dream. Tracy meets the school Negroes during a stint in detention and learns how to put a chocolate glide in her stride and fonky dip in her hip. She gets on the show by virtue of her black'n'white-cookie moves and threatens the vanilla reign of Amber Von Tussle who had, up till then, been a lock to three-peat for the title of Miss Teenage Hairspray. Tracy militates to have Corny's show integrate instead of only featuring "Negro Day" once a month. Conflict ensues, Tracy a fugitive, last-minute heroics, and catchy eleven o'clock number. Capeesh? Good.

Having now seen the film and observed the legally-mandated twenty-four-hour cooling-off period, I can say that I enjoyed the film quite a bit. It gallops along at a giddy clip until the 2/3 mark when it either pauses or sags depending on the generosity of one's view in back-to-back slow numbers ("(You're) Timeless To Me" and "I Know Where I've Been"). It's well-cast. A size-zero Michelle Pfeiffer is quite perfect and hilarious in a MILF-y reprise of her Catwoman charm as the conniving television station manager who will do anything to get her daughter crowned Miss Teenage Hairspray 1962. Christopher Walken momentarily dusts off his "Weapon of Choice" buck'n'wing as Tracy's dad, Wilbur. Amanda Bynes is fine as Tracy's sheltered-virgin-with-jungle-fever pal, Penny. Queen Latifah finally finds a role that stops me asking 'why is this woman getting work?!'. Nikki Blonsky shines as the newest sexy-cute gal in a line of zaftig bundles of show biz percolation who have inhabited this role. And the cameos are fine: John Waters, Jerry Stiller, Paul Dooley.

But the obstacle remains: John Travolta in drag. Two reasons. First, you just can't get around that it's Tony Manero gone terribly wrong under there. Where other actors have been content to let Edna Turnblad take them over, here Travolta is The Show. Despite the fact that Edna is actually a secondary role. It's like Angelina Jolie as Dolly Levi. The celebrity of the actor overpowers the anonymity required to sell the role. More importantly, Travolta's stated intent not to play Edna as a man playing a woman but simply as a woman rips half the guts out of the role. Divine was obviously a man, Harvey Feinstein was most obviously a man. The role is made to be played en travestie but not trompe l'oeil, yes? To play it "straight" is to miss the point. The tension arises from the juxtaposition of our knowledge that this is a man with the conceit that this is a woman. Being played by a man. Part, at least, of the humor arises from the dainty femme gestures made and attitudes struck by a big, burly man. Which is the second reason this doesn't work. Divine was fat. Fierstein is big. Travolta is not. And a fat suit and fat makeup don't move like human fat. Travolta actually looks encased in latex. Like Joan Rivers, the only thing that moves in a lifelike manner on his face are his eyes. Which leaves him looking like John Travolta drowning in a vat of Silly Putty.

Before seeing the film, I thought Travolta's performance would ruin it. Having seen the film, I can say that Hairspray is a triumph despite Travolta. He gives it a trouper's go, over-the-top accent and all. (Why he's the only one who even attempts a Maryland accent, I can't say. Although, truth be told, he ends up sounding like a Chesapeake Dialect Tape for Earnest Thespians.) And I totally get the producers' Travolta-in-a-musical=ka-chinnggg! reasoning. But it doesn't work for the betterment of the film. At all.

So, go see it. You'll enjoy it. The tunes are insanely hooky, for the most part. And the choreography is neat. And the throwaway jokes funny. And it survives the Travolta Effect. Which, if nothing else, proves the strength of the material and its filmic presentation.

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