Rumour has it John Travolta kicked himself for turning down the chance to star in Chicago. Which may explain why he’s so willing to risk ridicule in this big-screen adap of the eponymous Broadway musical (itself spun from John Waters’ 1988 movie).
Packed into a female fat-suit and crooning showtunes in a voice more Dr Evil than Baltimore-born, Trav’s quite a sight (and sound) as Edna Turnblad, overprotective mum to plus-size teen dreamer Tracy (impressive newcomer Nikki Blonsky).
Credit goes, then, to director-choreographer Adam Shankman (Bringing Down The House, The Pacifier) for sliding the Grease star so comfortably into Hairspray’s gaudy world of beehive hairdos, kitsch couture and peppy TV dance parties. It’s one of the latter – The Corny Collins Show (hosted by ex-X-Man James Marsden) – that Tracy gets the chance to strut her stuff on, beguiling viewers but not queen bee Amber Von Tussel (Brittany Snow). Let a bitter battle for the ‘Miss Teenage Hairspray’ crown commence…
Amid the adolescent rivalries, Shankman attempts to tap the ’60s-era tensions – primarily racial prejudice – familiar from the original movie and stage production. But while the theme of colour trouble gives pro-integration activist Queen Latifah (as ‘Motormouth Maybelle’) plenty to chew on in a typically brassy turn, Shankman’s handling lacks bite.
So, incisive social comment may be missing, but you do get the off-kilter joy of Trav tripping the light flabtastic with screen hubby Christopher Walken. Their surprisingly touching believability as a couple is complemented by Blonksy’s charm-stocked performance and a shoal of infectious ditties like ‘You Can’t Stop The Beat’, ‘I Know Where I’ve Been’ and ‘Miss Baltimore Crabs’. The last is belted out by Michelle Pfeiffer, who has a ball as Amber’s scheming, TV station-owning mother. While it can’t claim the sass and sex appeal of Chicago, Shankman’s film is shot through with fun and froth, nailing the crowd-cheering appeal of the Tony-winning stageshow. It’s just a shame that Hairspray doesn’t have quite the hold you’d hope for.