Monday, September 03, 2007

"Hairspray" for a New Generation

I have small affection for the original "Hairspray." It took me a long time to see it as something other than a "kid's movie" or a "studio sell-out," and now I recognize it for what it really was: John Waters' affectionate homage to the teenage dance shows he used to love (and, as usual, a love-letter to Baltimore). Even though it had its twin weighty themes of size acceptance and segregation, it was never more than an exuberant cartoon. Those heavy themes were only there to string gags on...and thank goodness, because "Hairspray" -- like all of John Waters' films -- was never more than a cartoon.

I've just seen the new version of "Hairspray." It is most fun when it revels in what it really is: a MUSICAL cartoon. The songs are mostly good, and so is the acting. There is some wonderfully funny slapstick in it, and both Michelle Pfieffer and Amanda Bynes steal the show. They've gone astonishingly far to replicate the look of the original characters (L'il Inez is a REAL timewarp) and to maintain the cheerful exuberance that a musical (and a John Waters adaptation) requires.

It fails terribly, however, when it tries to tackle those two incidental themes of size acceptance and segregation, which come off as both shoe-horned and patronizing. In the original version, the "protest" was obviously out of a suburban teen's fantasy, and it never pretended to be anything more than that. Here, however, they try to actually address the serious issues (or at least make reference to them), which is a big mistake. This movie doesn't have the chops.

The other terrible failure is the notorious "John Travolta in a fat suit." Why? No really, people...WHY? He looks plastic and frightening (as opposed to Divine who was SWEATY and frightening), his accent is awful, and he talks like something crappy is stuck in his mouth.

My biggest fear was that they'd "kiddie" the movie up, removing its nasty edge, but no...instead they simultaneously made it MORE child-friendly AND nastier. One minute everything is sweetness-n-light, and the next minute Corny Collins is telling his teenage female fans that they look like they need a "stiff one." The scriptwriters also, surprisingly, upped the religious fundamentalism of Penny Pingleton's mom...this coupled with Amanda Byne's goofy persona makes for some of the funniest moments in the film.

So "Hairspray 2007" is lots of fun. Weird and disturbed and flippant and too serious and poorly-developed, yes, but fun. And as an added bonus you get John Waters as a flasher during the first musical number.

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