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Wednesday, July 18, 2007 08:15 am

Ready for a big bouncy ’do?

The secret to box office success: Putting Travolta in a dress

Untitled Document The heck with blowin’ stuff up real good, double-crossin’ pirates, and conniving con artists — the secret to success, as far as summer movies in 2007 are concerned, is putting John Travolta in a dress! Although one might think this is just a cheap gimmick to get audiences to see Adam Shankman’s film adaptation of the Broadway musical Hairspray, this casting choice fits quite nicely into the film’s overall sense of goofy fun and infectious exuberance, making it one of the most entertaining movies of the year. The dance numbers are energetic and the music catchy, if not memorable, but this film also has an agenda, paying homage to those who took the civil-rights movement to the streets in the early ’60s and reminding us, without beating us over the head, that prejudice of all sorts still needs to be combated.
Tracy Turnblad (Nikki Blonsky) may be overweight, but that certainly hasn’t affected her self-esteem. Perky and full of life, her latest obsession involves becoming a featured dancer on the local music program The Corny Collins Show. Tracy must overcome a great deal of hostility, because of her weight and lack of social standing, before she can achieve her goal. Her nemesis is Velma Von Tussle (a wonderfully bitchy Michelle Pfeiffer), the manager of the station where Collins’ show is produced. Velma goes out of her way to put her “perfect” daughter, Amber (Brittany Snow), in the spotlight at every turn. However, with support from her best friend, Penny (Amanda Bynes), who enters into an interracial romance with dancer Seaweed (Elijah Kelley), and her optimistic dad, Wilbur (Christopher Walken), Tracy not only winds up seeing her dream come true but actually finds love along the way. Plotwise, there’s very little different between Shankman’s version and the original film, by director John Waters, which flirted with being a musical itself, what with its many song-and-dance numbers. However, the tunes here do add an undeniable sense of energy to the proceedings, as does the cast. There’s a sense here that the actors had a great deal of fun making this movie, and their enthusiasm for the material adds to the film’s overall sense of joy. The casting of Travolta is a bit of a gimmick, but he’s up to the task of poking fun at his image while delivering an effective comedic performance. He and Walken, who gives one of his patented quirky turns, have an odd chemistry that makes one wish they had more scenes together. Pfeiffer relishes her role as this bigoted harridan, knowing that to overplay the part is to render it cartoonish yet oddly accurate. Queen Latifah dominates the films whenever she appears as Seaweed’s mother and goes toe to toe with Pfeiffer, and Bynes, James Marsden (as Corky Collins) and Zac Efron (as star dancer Link Larkin) battle to see who can deliver the most charming breakout performance. Despite their best efforts, Blonsky takes that honor in the first of what I hope will be many movies. Hairspray is hardly original, and that’s just fine. Its familiarity is a bit of a comfort; unlike the many sequels that have cluttered this summer’s roster, the music and performances in this film provide a vibrant new take on the material instead of the by-the-numbers retread that so many other movies have delivered in recent months. Shankman and his crew provide the sort of fun picture perfectly suited for the summer season. Lively, bright, and entertaining, Hairspray proves far better than you might expect, a claim none of the recent big budget blockbusters can make. 
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