Head full of air

Set in 1962 Baltimore and based on a Broadway musical adaptation of John Waters’ 1988 cult classic of the same name, Hairspray is about a big girl with a big heart named Tracy (played by Nikki Blonsky).

Set in 1962 Baltimore and based on a Broadway musical adaptation of John Waters’ 1988 cult classic of the same name, Hairspray is about a big girl with a big heart named Tracy (played by Nikki Blonsky). She dreams of becoming a regular on the local TV program The Corny Collins Show, where a regular cast of teens Mash Potato and Twist to the latest hits.

As long as they’re white, that is. The show is segregated–the black and white kids are only allowed to dance together once per month, on “Negro Day,” and even then there’s a velvet rope between them.

Despite her girth, Tracy uses her blinding smile and natural ability to boogie-down to snag a spot on the show, steal the boyfriend of her skinny arch-enemy Amber Von Tussle and become a Civil Rights crusader on a mission to integrate the program.

For the most part, Hairspray is truly a joy to watch. The film is two energetic hours of carefree celebration, a smorgasbord of glam, glitter and flash. You’ll want to click your heels, shake your ass, and hug the total stranger sitting next to you. Watching Hairspray is the closest you’ll ever come to visiting LaLa Land. Adam Shankman, the mastermind behind cinematic masterpieces such as, um, Cheaper By the Dozen 2 and A Walk to Remember, should fall to his knees and thank god he was given the opportunity to direct this adaptation.

But, unlike Tracy’s helmet-like hairdo, the movie isn’t perfect. The fun never stops, not even long enough for Hairspray to stay true to its own message, which is that we should all celebrate uniqueness and embrace each other’s differences.

A truly clever musical can deal with heavy issues without dragging itself down. But in Hairspray, there’s no time between the merry orgy of song and dance for any character to do much more than smile, wink and melodiously cry “can’t we all just get along?”

If the 1988 Hairspray‘s dealings with race relations, gay rights and size acceptance were a tad immature, what the new Hairspray has to say is downright childish and insultingly dumbed down. Through several awkward stabs at humor, the filmmakers inject into the plot some naive sentiments that were refreshingly absent from the original movie: fat people don’t care about anything but stuffing their faces, people of color automatically have more rhythm than white people, and it’s funny and gross when two men kiss.

First, there’s Tracy, who suddenly hides candy bars under her pillow and makes perplexing statements like “this is so Afro-tastic!”

And there’s hardly a moment when Tracy’s very large mother, Edna Turnblad, isn’t ogling a plate of soul food or reaching longingly for a donut. And while the character of Edna, who is traditionally played by a man, smooches her husband in the musical version, the kiss is suspiciously left out of the film.

Once-dynamic characters are flattened to make room for song and dance, which will disappoint old Hairspray fans. The most unfortunate casualty is Tracy herself, whose charm and resilience brought all the magic to the original film.

For thousands of dejected, rejected youths growing up in the late 1980s, the hefty heroine was more than just a movie character. She was a hero, a source of inspiration and a bosom buddy. In this version, she’s often little more than an extra. Enjoying the new remake feels like betraying that old friend.

But you’d still have to be quite a Scrooge (or really hate musicals) to be unable to find something likable about Hairspray. Even painfully irritating James Marsden, most famous for playing whiny, insipid Cyclops in the X-Men trilogy, is surprisingly charming as Corny Collins, the good-hearted host of the teen dance show. He’s a capable singer, too.

Queen Latifah is poised and regal as Corny’s Negro Day co-host Motormouth Maybell, and Christopher Walken is adorable as Edna’s husband Wilbur.

But there is one tragic miscast. John Travolta is a positively grotesque stand-in for the late Divine, the infamous yet much-revered drag queen who played Tracy’s dumpy mother Edna Turnblad in 1988. All decked out in a fat suit, with beady eyes and waxy-smooth skin, Travolta looks like the deformed love child of Gloria Gaynor and E.T., and hasn’t an ounce of femininity.

Casual observers will likely love Hairspray. John Waters purists, already balking at the sacrilege of a remake, will find plenty to hate. But as Corny Collins declares in the movie, “you can fight it or you can rock out to it.” And this reviewer chooses to rock out. After all, the growing popularity of Hairspray only proves what we hardcore fans have known for years: John Waters is a genius.