John Travolta as Edna Turnblad
Michelle Pfeiffer as Velma Von Tussle
Christopher Walken as Wilbur Turnblad
Amanda Bynes as Penny Pingleton
James Marsden as Corny Collins
Queen Latifah as Motormouth Maybelle
Brittany Snow Amber Von Tussle
Zac Efron as Link Larkin
Elijah Kelley as Seaweed
Alison Janney as Prudy Pingleton
Nikki Blonsky as Tracy Turnblad
Even at his most affable, John Waters films are tricky, niche beasts and have probably been better off for being so, giving him ample room for his particular brand of aloof, ironic humor. The original "Hairspray" is as good an example of that as any, with it's sharper than is apparent story of prejudice and change featuring a perky overweight girl (played here by radiant newcomer Nikki Blonsky) who bucks the system to become an unlikely teen star, and then becomes the even more unlikely center of an anti-segregation movement. It's easy material to handle badly, and while the watering down necessary to turn it into a successful stage musical probably didn't hurt it too much on Broadway, bringing "Hairspray" back to film is a far more difficult endeavor. Inevitably, something is lost in the translation.
Like the recent unsuccessful adaptation of "The Producers," "Hairspray" has brought a number of stylistic conventions from the stage – where sheer exuberance can successfully carry a light show through the shared empathy of the live audience – back to the big screen with it, and not particularly to the film's benefit. Unfortunately, the filmmaker's devotion to the not-quite-source material has blinded them to that problem. Their main intent seems to be bringing what they love about the stage show to a wide audience, but the result is more of a film of a Broadway show rather than the film version of a Broadway show, and those are two very different things.
Unsurprisingly, it's the musical numbers where "Hairspray" excels. Director/choreographer Adam Shankman ("Cheaper by the Dozen 2") has crafted a series of well-done, if not particularly novel, numbers that takes great advantage of his talented cast and generally excellent production design. A duet between teen heartthrob Link (Zac Ephron) and Tracy's framed photo is a particular standout. They're colorful, rousing and fun, even if a lot of the lyrics tend towards the banal. However, while the film is composed mainly of song and dance routines, it's not composed solely of them, and it's when "Hairspray" stops dancing and becomes an actual movie that the wheels come off the trolley. Despite a talented cast, there is a tendency towards over acting, and the dramatic interludes have all the heft of a 1970s sitcom, and a lot of the same delivery. Some might argue that anything outside of the musical numbers don't matter, but they do. They completely upset the pace of the film and take the viewer out of the reality being created. Waters worked that problem out by balancing it with darker, harder edged material – often within the same scene – but, ironically, a lot of the truly subversive elements have been carefully excised, presumably to make the film more appealing to a wide audience. The result isn't bad, either on it's own or in comparison with the original, but it is as light and air headed as it's pretending to be.
Despite that, most of the cast is too good to do a really bad job. Even though he's been essentially playing himself for years, Christopher Walken is still fun to watch and "Hairspray" is no exception. It also features the welcome return of Michelle Pfeiffer, whose voice has always seemed tailor made for a femme fatale. But the heart of the film is Nikki Blonski, who is generally impossible not to like and makes her way through the film with poise and grace; her Tracy Turnblad is one of the few actual improvements over the original. Ephron and dancer Elijah Kelly bring a great deal of style to the proceedings as well, but – like many of the other supporting players, including Marsden and Bynes – aren't in the film anywhere near enough.
Unfortunately, John Travolta's Edna Turnblad, apart from one excellent dance sequence with Walken, doesn't really work at all. He always seems to be putting on an act rather than actually acting, such that Edna becomes this tremendous in-joke that everyone is supposed to laugh at regardless of the context of the scene, but it's not funny enough to justify killing the suspension of disbelief the way it does.
In alchemy, the transmuting of materials from one form to another would, in theory, distill their elements down to their purest essence. In film, the opposite is true. The more iterations are gone through, the more muddled things tend to get, and "Hairspray" surely suffers from that problem. It's good at what it does, but not everything it does is good.