Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Even John Travolta Can’t Stop The Beat

I have a confession to make: I am obsessed with the Broadway Musical “Hairspray.” If you’ve ever passed by my bathroom at 8am (heaven help you), there’s a good chance you’ve caught me humming “Good Morning Baltimore.” So from the moment I saw the first preview for the feature film version of “Hairspray,” there was only one word that echoed in my mind: “Miscast!”

Before I slip into my tirade, let me say, to its credit, the feature film mostly stays true to the story of the theater version (with only a few minor and unnecessary plot additions) – the story is strong, the songs are ultra-catchy, and the message is light-hearted and poignant. That said, on with the miscasting critique:

Michelle Pfeiffer, bless her heart, was more believable in “Married to the Mob.” While Pfeiffer does the best she can as the impossibly self-centered station exec Velma Von Tussle, the role should have gone to someone more exuberant, with the ability to be mockingly condescending. Jane Krakowski would have been great, with her daughter, Amber, played cloyingly by Mandy Moore (which would have kept her from making “License to Wed,” and we’d all be better off). And while Amanda Bynes has certainly come into her own, the role of Penny Pingleton needs to be played by someone less self-assured, and definitely less tan – like Michelle Trachtenberg or Heather Matarazzo. And my gosh, in the final sequence, couldn’t they have given her a dress she could actually dance in?

While everyone loves Christopher Walken, the role of whoopee cushion/fake poo salesman Wilmer Turnblad needs to be played by a shorter, balder actor with an unexpectedly great voice. Did no one call Danny DeVito, Jason Alexander or Stanley Tucci? I can only imagine that the casting director saw the Fatboy Slim “Weapon of Choice” video and decided that was enough to cast Walken.

John Travolta. Where do I begin? The part of pants-pressing Edna Turnblad belongs to Harvey Firestein – or at the very least Bruce Vilanch. The whole gag is that this is a really big manly guy playing the role of Tracy’s too-protective big-boned mother. (Even Divine was a manly drag queen.) So many of the script’s jokes fall flat in the film because the character just isn’t right.

Additionally, a few songs – including “Mama, I’m a Big Girl Now” and “The Big Dollhouse” have been left out of the film completely – and “It Takes Two” and “Cooties” are merely played in the background during transitional scenes. I’d guess that these changes have been made 1) to edit for time, and 2) because the performers don’t seem quite strong enough to carry them out. Nikki Blonsky, in particular, while she looks the part, doesn’t seem to have enough personality, pizzazz, and spunk. Tracy is supposed to be a fireball, but many of Blonsky’s actions don’t relay that irrepressible flame. As this is her first film, that is to be expected, so I’ll let it slide.

My real beef with the film is that the story and the script are not played enough for laughs. It’s not quite over the top enough – and that’s a shame.

In the theatrical production, there’s a moment when Link sings “It Takes Two” and Tracy is so overcome with attraction that she hangs on his words, jumps into the song and appears to be humping his leg. Or, at the end of the Mr. and Mrs. Turnblad duet “Timeless to Me” when Wilbur hits a high note, and Edna hits her lowest note of the production (vocally showcasing she’s a man). So many of the brilliant moments from the stage production either didn’t make it into the film or were neglected.

In short – I’m still going to hum the songs in the shower, but if I get a real “Hairspray” itch – I’ll make my way to the theater. And in the meantime, I’m pretending that I’m not disturbed by Zac Efron on the forthcoming cover of Rolling Stone. (What is this TigerBeat?)

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