If you think I’m about to rant about how lame musicals are, you clearly haven’t read many of my reviews! I’m actually a huge whore for musicals, from the old MGM classics to last spring’s Irish busker tale “Once”, by the way of “Grease”, “Moulin Rouge!” and “Dreamgirls”, not to mention the joy that is Bollywood. I own “From Justin to Kelly” on DVD, for chrissakes! The only recent musical I remember disliking is “Chicago”, i.e. the one with the sterile art direction and the anorexic lead who couldn’t sing or dance. “Hairspray” at least has a star with a nice voice and some choice moves in Blonsky though, while spunky enough, her performance is rather one-note.
Should we blame the newcomer actress for her inability to make us care for what happens to her character? Nah, though when paired with a romantic interest played by the soulless, charisma-free Zac Efron, it’s pretty hopeless. The far worse offender here is director Adam Shankman, who is after all the individual responsible for such crimes against humanity as “Bringing Down the House”, “The Pacifier” and “Cheaper by the Dozen 2”. His adaptation of the Broadway musical based on the 1988 John Waters flick (phew!) is nowhere near as godawful as those, but it still displays no cinematic flair, wit or understanding in storytelling and character development. The whole thing is flat, flat, flat.
I wasn’t familiar with the Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman songs before so I have no idea how they stand on their own but as presented in the film, they’re a mixed blessing. They’re not bad, in fact most of them are rather catchy at first, but none of them maintains any momentum and they all wind up outstaying their welcome. Again, I can’t say if it’s the songs that are self-indulgent or if it’s Shankman’s limp staging of them that undermines them.
The worst thing is that, aside from Efron and the ever obnoxious Queen Latifah, there’s a wonderful cast here. Yet John Travolta, buried under tons of latex as Tracy’s mom, becomes only a distraction here, Christopher Walken has a few amusing moments but doesn’t get to show what a weapon of choice on the dance floor he can be, Michelle Pfeiffer and Brittany Snow are stuck in thankless villain roles, and so on. Then again, there is at least one performer who manages to shine her brightest and elevate the film whenever she’s on screen, even when she’s only in the backdrop of a shot:
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, Amanda Bynes is Amanda fine! I’ve been harsh on the Shankman so far, but his handling of the Penny Pingleton character, Tracy’s best friend, is a stroke of genius. She’s cute as a button with her pigtails and green schoolgirl jumper, her dumb blonde act is a hoot and you gotta love how she’s always slurping on a lollipop! She’s also got the chance not to be paired with a white bread bore like Zac Efron but with the single best singer and dancer in the film, Negro Day superstar Elijah Kelley. The two have sizzling chemistry, too, and their few scenes together are every bit as exhilarating as the rest of the picture is tiresome.