The stage version of Hairspray was the best of the recent Broadway behemoths, even if it buried its skewering of WASP panic in the face of black progress beneath thick layers of tongue-in-cheek nostalgia. Yes, you could walk away from the musical thinking that early-60s' segregation was nothing that a little doo-wop couldn't cure, but at least the show skipped the labored slapstick of The Producers and the ponderous self-seriousness of Wicked. More important, the songs were pretty good -- a dozen-and-a-half clever, up-tempo numbers styled after the Top-40 hits of the era (the Angels, Jackie Wilson, etc.). And unlike the songs from Dreamgirls (which charts roughly the same period in music history from the other side of the race divide), Hairspray featured an abundance of good old-fashioned soul.
Hairspray the movie is a faithful record of the stage version, but that's all it is -- a recording. Choreographer-turned-director Adam Shankman proves competent at the placement and movement of human bodies, but fails once he slips behind the movie camera. Shankman has gotten Hairspray on the screen, but he hasn't rethought the material in cinematic terms (the way, for example, that Frank Oz did when adapting Little Shop of Horrors). The result is an odd hybrid that lacks both the rambunctious energy of a live performance and the expressionistic pull of a great movie musical.
That leaves the film to survive on its auditory pleasures and the novelty of its stunt casting, most notably John Travolta as Tracy's plus-size mom, Edna. The most dandyish of ostensibly straight contemporary film actors, Travolta seemed like sound casting. Yet given this primo opportunity to get his femme on, he's oddly restrained in a part that calls for the grandiose. Meanwhile, as the movie's vampish villainess Velma Von Tussle, Michelle Pfeiffer plays her scenes with such white-rich-bitch intensity that her lengthy screen hiatus -- this is her first role since White Oleander in 2002 -- suddenly doesn't seem long enough.
Hairspray is far from an abject failure. But its only flashes of inspiration exist on the periphery: Queen Latifah gives a joyous performance as Motormouth Maybelle, hostess of the monthly "Negro Day" on the film's American Bandstand rip-off, The Corny Collins Show. Christopher Walken is too little seen as Tracy's gadget-man dad. And James Marsden, as Corny Collins, is so adept at playing period roles (here and in The Notebook) that you dread watching him in another comic-book adaptation. The publicity surrounding Hairspray is bound to focus on the casting of Travolta and tween pinup-du-jour Zac Efron, who plays heartthrob Link Larkin. But it's Marsden -- flashing a Pepsodent smile that could guide ships to shore in a raging monsoon -- who twinkles his baby blues and captures the virginal 1950s innocence to which Hairspray is, ultimately, a cockeyed adieu.