"Hairspray" is the kind of movie musical that's peppy, cute, sprightly, vivacious, even tuneful - unfortunately it's not funny. It's not funny in the way that John Waters's original 1988 film was funny - that is, Waters's film had witty lines, witty moments, and a witty view of racist America in 1962. And of course it had Divine, that 300-pound transvestite muse of Waters who played Edna Turnblad, the mother of the film's heroine Tracy, to within an inch of her life. So when the powers that be decided to make a Broadway musical of the film (with new songs and a new script) they of course decided that Edna needed to be played by a male - on Broadway this was Harvey Fierstein and Bruce Vilanch. Now that the same group has made a film of the Broadway show, they've cast John Travolta in a fat suit as Edna. What I'm saying is that while Divine was an inspired choice to play Edna, insisting that she continue to be played by a man isn't actually funny. Apparently, though, the producers think it is. What they didn't get is that it was Divine who made it funny; not because he was in drag (which he was all the time) but because he was a perfect woman, and John Travolta is not.
Edna's husband is played by Christopher Walken, who shows some nice soft-shoe moves in a lovely duet with Edna; you can believe that he is in love with her; and Travolta, a good actor, responds unselfconsciously to the sexy theme of the song. And the director and choreographer, Adam Shankman, has given them some very nice moments throughout the film.
So the film is not at all a failure; it has some good songs, with a great opening set-piece that has Tracy Turnblad singing "Good Morning Baltimore" as she walks through the streets (she passes Waters in a quick cameo as a flasher), and Tracy is played by a wonderful Ricky Lake lookalike and soundalike, Nikki Blonsky. If you've forgotten the original plot, Tracy lives to be on the Corny Collins afternoon TV dance show, which of course was segregated (one day a month was 'Negro Day,' hosted by Motormouth Maybelle, a gorgeous Queen Latifah). The station manager is the bigoted Velma Von Tussle (Michelle Pfeiffer), for whom any Negro Day is too much. Velma has great hopes for her own daughter Amber, whom she pushes to be in the limelight.
In school, when Tracy is sent to detention, she finds it's mostly black kids practicing new dance moves. She takes to them and they take to her. When Velma tries to cancel Negro Day, Maybelle and Tracy lead a march for integration. And of course the grand finale has everybody (but Velma) dancing and integrating, so to speak. The film is a great deal better than last year's "Dreamgirls," which was a white man's version of Motown, without either the soul or the R&B. And this has great versions of all the 60's dances; it just doesn't have the wit of the original.