Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Travolta Is 'Divine' in 'Hairspray' Film


Travolta Is 'Divine' in 'Hairspray' Film
Friday , June 01, 2007
By Roger Friedman

And now, “Hairspray,” the John Waters musical film based on the Broadway musical that was based on the original 1988 John Waters non-musical film that launched Rikki Lake.

It’s brought to us by the producers of the movie musical version of “Chicago” and directed by Adam Shankman, a choreographer with some pretty awful movies on his resume.

Into this mix comes John Travolta, looking a little like Barney the dinosaur (except not purple) as Edna Turnblad, previously played on Broadway by Harvey Fierstein and in the movie by Divine, Waters’ late transvestite of choice. Who can forget Divine in “Pink Flamingos”? Did we ever think that Vinnie Barbarino would play his/her part?

And yet, you really have to see Travolta to believe him, especially toward the end of “Hairspray” when he finally lets loose — dressed in a fat suit as a woman in a red tutu and high heels — and dances up a storm in the film’s finale. He’s remarkable.

I don’t know if it’s an Oscar performance, but I do know that when “Hairspray” is shown in big theaters (I saw it in a screening room, still a little unfinished), audiences are going to go wild with cheers and whistles.

Travolta even signals the audience with his now-trademark "cat eye” from “Pulp Fiction” as he launches like a spinning top onto the stage of the fictional Corny Collins Show. You can only love it. Somehow he brings that old Travolta warmth and charisma to a crazy costume (what a change from his last strange outfit, in “Battlefield Earth”).

“Hairspray,” if you don’t know, has a very simply plot. Circa 1959, 17-year-old Tracy Turnblad of Baltimore — wide as she is tall with a huge beehive hairdo — only wants to dance on the local “Corny Collins Show.” It’s like Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand.”

Tracy is played by newcomer Nikki Blonsky with such infectious ebullience, a whole new cult may quickly grow up around her.

Corny Collins, though, is the revelation: James Marsden, known previously from a series of cardboard performances in “Superman” and “X-Men,” turns out to be a terrific song and dance man. He’s an absolute knockout. I wouldn’t be surprised if Broadway producers start contacting him to play leads in shows.

Anyway, Tracy’s parents are played by Travolta and Christopher Walken, who almost steals the movie as the proprietor of a joke shop. Her best friend is Amanda Bynes, and Bynes’ mom is “West Wing” star Alison Janney returning to her comedy roots.

There isn’t a lot more to “Hairspray” except for the subplot. Not only does Tracy want to dance on the "Corny Collins Show," she wants to integrate it. The show occasionally features “Negro Day,” hosted by Motormouth Maybelle (Queen Latifah) and showcasing R&B then known as “race music.”

It’s Tracy’s one desire “to make every day Negro Day” and bring the black kids who dance on the satellite show onto the main stage. One of the funnier bits is a running joke where all the really cool kids (read: black) get detention on purpose. The detention room is really a juke joint, where there’s great music and cool dancing. It’s very funny.

Right now, New Line Cinema is downplaying “Hairspray,” hoping to avoid the hype machine that nearly killed “Dreamgirls” last year. This may work. Enough fans of the Broadway show will want to see this movie. As word spreads, others will come, too.

“Hairspray” is like a big colorful carnival, with loads of cotton candy. It’s never anything but happy, even when it’s trying to be profound.

More importantly, the performances are so well-defined that each one of them is going to be noticed. My favorite was Queen Latifah, whose voice is so amazing, and performance so mesmerizing, I wouldn’t be surprised if she wound up with a lot of awards and nominations. Once again, as with “Chicago,” she is the breakout star of the movie.

Travolta, Blonsky, Walken and Michelle Pfeiffer as the uptight producer of “Corny Collins” are all excellent. Teenagers, I’m told, will flock in to see Zac Effron of “High School Musical” as the heartthrob of Corny’s show. And Jerry Stiller reprises his role as Mr. Pinky from the original movie.

“Hairspray” opens on July 20, on an open weekend with competition only from Adam Sandler and TV’s Kevin James in “I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry.” It’s a tricky weekend, since NFL pre-season is still three weeks away. Guys, John Travolta in a dress awaits you like it or not.

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