It’s a gay thing. That seems to be the excuse most guys use to avoid musicals. Chicago? Gay. Dreamgirls? Supergay. Phantom of the Opera? Don’t. No way is Hairspray going to turn the dudes brokeback. For starters, it John Travolta in a dress. But cut it some slack, and the movie version of the still-running Broadway hit is a plus-size bundle of fun, despite herky-jerky pacing. It helps that Leslie Dixon’s screenplay stays in tune with the source material, the 1988 movie that gave John Waters — the sultan of sleaze — his first mainstream hit. Set in the racially divided Baltimore of 1962, the Waters film suggests that the closest a black teenager could get to cultural integration was “Negro Day” on The Corny Collins Show, a local whiter-than-white American Bandstand. It’s up to Tracy Turnblad, the chubby teen daughter of big mama Edna, played by Divine in all his 300-pound drag-queen glory, to end segregation. >Despite the PG rating, Waters kept the story cannily subversive. Broadway, with Harvey Fierstein stepping into Edna’s muumuus, softened the edges. And Hollywood, with Travolta wearing a fat suit and a Miss Piggy smile, pours on the sugar coating. Still, Hairspray earns knockout status for its humor, heart and high spirits. As Tracy, trumpet-tonsiled newcomer Nikki Blonsky is a dynamo. Not only does she want to storm the barricades erected against race and flab by TV station manager Velma Von Tussle (Michelle Pfeiffer, licking every delicious drop of the role’s sexy villainy), Tracy is determined to dance on TV with dreamboat Linc Larkin (Zac Efron of High School Musical), even though Amber (Brittany Snow), Velma’s blond bee-yatch of a daughter, has her initials on Linc’s tight ass. Tracy finds inspiration at school detention (for “inappropriate hair height”) when the black kids teach her hot dance moves that catch the eye of Corny (James Marsden, Cyclops from the X-Men films, is a revelation as a song-and-dance man). When Tracy’s BFF Penny Pingleton (Amanda Bynes) falls hard for a black boy, Seaweed (the megatalented Elijah Kelley), her racist mom (the priceless Allison Janney) goes ballistic. Seaweed’s mom, record-shop owner Motormouth Maybelle (Queen Latifah) won’t stand in the way of teen romance. But civil rights are another thing, and Latifah blows the roof off with the rousing anthem “I Know Where I’ve Been.”
Are you getting all this? Travolta makes it easy, giving Edna a butterball sweetness she never had in previous incarnations. Instead of glib laughs, he plays her for real. And when Edna finally leaves her apartment after years of fat-shame exile, watch out. Travolta is hot stuff. And Christopher Walken excels as Edna’s adoring husband, Wilbur. When he looks at his woman, it’s with total love. As they duet and dance to “You’re Timeless to Me,” this pure pow of a musical finds its much-needed grace notes.
The bounce in the score, by composer Marc Shaiman and lyricist Scott Wittman, lifts the movie over the rough spots, i.e., misfired jokes, stagey camera work and a relentless perkiness that suggests director Adam Shankman spiked the cast with Red Bull. I’ve never been a fan of Shankman. (The Pacifier — yuck!) But he spins this one with becoming skill, especially the dances, which benefit from his experience as a choreographer. It’s hard to resist the film’s exuberance. By the big finale, even homophobes will tap their feet. OK, maybe not. But the less close-minded are sure to respond. Hairspray has a beat. And you sure can dance to it.