By Christy Lemire
The world probably didn’t need another film version of John Waters’ 1988 romp “Hairspray” any more than it needed a Broadway musical version of it. The whole cycle reeks of that movie-of-a-stage-production-of-a-movie debacle that has tainted the legacy of “The Producers.”
Having said that, this new brand of “Hairspray” is a hybrid of its predecessors: enormously entertaining but with only faint traces of Waters’ signature dark, kitschy humor. It is, in a word, safe — one you would ordinarily never use to describe Waters’ work.
Director and choreographer Adam Shankman keeps the tone light, the hair high and the pacing snappy, even while delivering the film’s segregation-is-bad message, which seems archaic and obvious 45 years after the movie’s setting. (Shankman certainly shows a defter touch here than he did with “Bringing Down the House” and “The Pacifier.”)
But there is something refreshing in the innocence of the film, written by Leslie Dixon based on both Waters’ script and the 2002 Broadway hit. No winking, no mugging — just earnest, wholesome, knock-your-socks-off fun. You’ll probably be tempted to burst into applause at the end of the splashier numbers, as several people in the audience did during a recent screening in Hollywood. (The music comes from Marc Shaiman with lyrics by Shaiman and Scott Wittman, Tony winners for the stage version.)
Much of the movie’s charm radiates from 18-year-old newcomer Nikki Blonsky, an absolute delight as the film’s plus-sized protagonist, Tracy Turnblad, the role that made a then-unknown Ricki Lake a star 20 years ago. She’s just so darn perky, so unflappably sunny as she belts her way through the opening tune, “Good Morning Baltimore,” she makes it impossible to resist getting caught up in her enthusiasm.
Tracy’s greatest dream is to make it as a dancer on “The Corny Collins Show,” which she and best friend Penny Pingleton (a cute but stiff Amanda Bynes) scurry home to watch on TV after school — that is, until she discovers the racial discrimination that plagues the program. The show’s regulars are billed as “the nicest kids in town,” but they’re not exactly a diverse bunch. That’s why there’s Negro Day with host Motormouth Maybelle (Queen Latifah), which only comes once a month — though, as Tracy gushes, she wishes every day were Negro Day.
She gets her chance to shake things up when Corny (a perfectly slick James Marsden) notices her during a dance competition. This allows her to show off the new moves she learned from the black kids in detention, including Seaweed (Elijah Kelley), who happens to be Maybelle’s son. Kelley, whose biggest role before this was as a dancer in the forgettable “Take the Lead,” is hugely charismatic — great-looking, likable, a talented singer and dancer and as much of a discovery as Blonsky herself.