"If we can't put a smile on your face, your skin's too tight." That's the motto of Wilbur Turnblad's novelty store in the musical Hairspray, and it might as well be the motto for Adam Shankman's unstoppable film. Adapted from the 2002 Broadway musical, which was itself adapted from John Waters' 1988 comedy, Hairspray makes for a straightforward, unfussy musical comedy, one that entertains twice as much as the dour Dreamgirls.
Right from the start, with opening number "Good Morning Baltimore," director-choreographer Shankman repents for his lousy big-screen output (Cheaper by the Dozen 2, anyone?) by infusing the musical with energy and humor. After an intentionally uninspiring helicopter shot of the waterfront and blocky apartment rows, the song's cheery salute to Baltimore (including a John Waters cameo) comes across as likeably delusional, just like its singer.
It's teen Tracy Turnblad (delightful newcomer Nikki Blonsky), chastised by her teachers for "inappropriate hair height" and looked down upon by snobby peers for being short and stout. Despite it all, Tracy is a perky and optimistic heroine, racing home with best friend Penny Pingleton (Amanda Bynes) to moon over teen idol Link Larkin (Zac Efron) on "The Corny Collins Show," a local daytime-TV teen dance party. When Corny (James Marsden) and producer Velma Von Tussle (Michelle Pfeiffer) host auditions for new dancers, Tracy determines to get on the hairspray-clouded show and, therefore, closer to Link.
In accordance with Hairspray tradition, Tracy's mother Edna is played by a man: in this case, John Travolta. Initially grotesque but certainly funny, Travolta only falls down on the job in awkwardly tentative vocals (making the already sketchy number "Welcome to the '60s" a decided dud). As Tracy's dad Wilbur, Christopher Walken does an amusing impression of himself and happily breaks out his song-and-dance chops; as local music diva Motormouth Maybelle, Queen Latifah is more droll than usual. Pfeiffer scores with solid singing and a hilarious catalog of dirty looks. For the kids, there are Bynes, Efron, and Elijah Kelley, all terrific. Also on hand: Paul Dooley, original screen Wilbur Jerry Stiller, and, in a cameo, original screen Tracy Ricky Lake.
If Waters' original material has gone from outrageous to naughty, it's as much a sign of changing times as it is a stylistic cowardice. Still, this Hairspray is a bit too clean (Marc Shaiman's score included) to do full justice to Waters' twisted sensibility and the story's tussle between Wonder-Bread music and African-American soul. Integration is integral to the plot, with a "jungle fever" relationship brewing and Tracy's fearless support of her new black friends (resigned to once-a-month "Negro Day" on "The Corny Collins Show"). The "simpler" times provide some good sight gags, a smoke-filled teacher's lounge and pregnant women drinking martinis among them.
As produced by Neil Meron and Craig Zadan (Chicago) and costumed by Rita Ryack (Casino), Hairspray's every frame bursts with eye-popping imagery. Shankman literally keeps things moving, blowing through corny dialogue and often quick-cutting through musical numbers (while never obscuring his boffo choreography). Shankman shows visual imagination when, in "Without Love," Link sings a duet with a framed photo of Tracy, her image come to life. The vocals are sometimes mixed too low, a frequent fault of recent screen musicals, and the story loses a bit of steam during the ramp-up to the Miss Teenage Hairspray-crowning finale. Nevertheless, this crowd-pleasing, hormone-drenched, super-peppy screen musical is a must-see.