Back when prankish writer-director John Waters was shocking midnight-movie audiences by showing an obese transvestite devouring dog feces in Pink Flamingos, his 1988 movie Hairspray was almost unthinkable: How could Waters make a movie that the whole family could enjoy? With Hairspray, Waters' famous fondness for weirdoes, oddballs, and outcasts flowered into full-on sweetness. Since then, he's reigned as the godfather of bad taste and the counterculture's favorite uncle, while Hairspray has conquered Broadway and wowed tourists as a Tony-award-winning musical.
Now Hairspray completes its strange journey from the streets of Baltimore to the Great White Way and on to Hollywood via a big-budget, star-studded adaptation of the Broadway smash, courtesy of Cheaper By The Dozen 2 director Adam Shankman and Pay It Forward screenwriter Leslie Dixon. Waters cultists have ample reason to be wary, but the film retains a surprisingly subversive edge that undercuts its blinding surface gloss. Zaftig newcomer Nicole Blonsky stars as an ebullient high-school student who becomes a popular attraction on a Baltimore dance program and an unlikely foot soldier in the battle for integration. Buried under mountains of prosthetic flab and makeup, John Travolta once again surrenders his wavering dignity as Blonsky's morbidly obese mother, who's ambivalent about her daughter's quest for notoriety.
Travolta's stunt casting doesn't work: He sounds like Truman Capote being strangled, and his face always appears to be melting under the hot lights. Christopher Walken fares much better as Blonsky's father, an ingratiatingly clueless, big-hearted joke-shop proprietor whose guilelessness borders on pathological. A scene in which Walken giddily shows off a succession of wacky novelty items while ice-blooded dragon lady Michelle Pfeiffer tries to seduce him is a tour de force of comic obliviousness. A single shot of Walken in a fright wig and outsized novelty glasses is funnier than two hours of Travolta in Big Momma's House-style drag. Still, Hairspray winningly evokes the sunny optimism of the early '60s, and the supporting cast is uniformly excellent, right down to 'tween favorites James Marsden, Zac Efron, and Amanda Bynes. Though the film is too slick and heavy-handed in its pro-integration sloganeering, and it's burdened by Travolta's ill-conceived star turn, its infectious high spirits and catchy tunes still pack one hell of a sugar rush.