Maybe the rumors aren't true. Maybe John Travolta really is a full-blooded, 100 percent heterosexual male of the meat-and-potatoes, farts-and-football, coke-and-whores variety. How else do you explain the utter unease with which he slips into the double-E bra and Size-13 fuzzy slippers of Baltimore's own Edna Turnblad? The role was immortalized by shit-eating drag legend Divine almost 20 years ago, and more recently reinvented for Broadway by Type-A theater queen Harvey Fierstein. Admittedly, both of those performers set the bar impossibly high. But even the butchest, most-closeted gay man would have an easier time cross-dressing than Travolta, whose fat-suit performance in the new movie-musical version of Hairspray vacillates between vague embarrassment and a self-satisfied smirk. He can't even say "fabulous" convincingly. Travolta is the only person in the movie not playing it straight, as it were; speaking in a breathy, self-conscious slur, he delivers all his lines with big quotes around them. You can almost see him thinking, "If this thing flops, I'm not going down with the ship."
Luckily, his ego's not enough to sink the movie. Hairspray is, for the most part, effortless fun, buoyed along by a hugely talented ensemble cast, fantastic dance numbers and the best atomic-age production design since director Todd Haynes' meticulously retro melodrama Far From Heaven. Travolta notwithstanding, there's no reason it should've worked this well. The movie and the musical upon which it's based takes to heart everything the sultan of sleaze John Waters skewered in his 1988 indie comedy: dance shows, '60s nostalgia, big girls with big dreams, even race relations.
It doesn't always come together, and Leslie Dixon's script could do without the constant emphasis on "following your dreams" and the "thing in you that you want to set free." But by taking his cues from the great movie musicals of the era and not the clumsy, watered-down Oscar-bait of the past few years director-choreographer Adam Shankman has come up with one of the purest entertainments of the summer.
The details if not the tone of Waters' original movie are kept intact. The stout, sweet Tracy Turnblad (Nikki Blonsky) spends every afternoon in her inner-city hovel, her eyes and feet glued to the daily broadcast of Baltimore's most popular dance hour, The Corny Collins Show. She may not have style, class or a single-digit dress size, but Tracy's got glassy-eyed teen determination in spades, and after a fateful afternoon in detention where she learns a few moves from the black kids who get to be a part of Corny's "Negro Day" she struts her stuff all the way to the top of the show's call-in contest. But breaking down the weight barrier isn't enough for Tracy: She wants to steal the show's resident heartthrob Link Larkin (Zac Efron) away from his rich-bitch girlfriend Amber Von Tussle (Brittany Snow), and invite her detention buddies along for a few integrated dance numbers. Needless to say, this doesn't sit with Amber's icy mom, Velma (Michelle Pfeiffer in top form), who also happens to be the station manager pulling all the strings.
The musical numbers and there are many spring organically out of the action. Where the big-screen versions of Chicago and Rent seemed downright ashamed of their song-and-dance routines, framing them as fantasies or flashbacks, Hairspray embraces them head-on. Shankman even retains the classic cliché of spoken dialogue giving way to song; when Tracy's new pal Seaweed (the kinetic Elijah Kelly) dances her right out of the classroom for the raucous "Run and Tell That," the transition is so seamless you might not even notice it happening. The director doesn't do everything right: He botches Queen Latifah's big moment, a lazily staged anti-segregation dirge called "I Know Where I've Been." But he makes room for an inspired cameo by Waters, as well as a few other tasteless touches that would make the master proud.
One thing even the creator of Pink Flamingos wouldn't have predicted is the amped-up presence of Edna: Where Divine once barked gruff one-liners from the shadows, Travolta wheels his prosthetic girth all over the street, hoofing it up with Blonsky in a number called "Welcome to the '60s." Shankman plots his moves as well as anyone could; seeing Travolta's Edna kick up those mammoth hamhocks, you can't help but think some CGI wizardry was involved. But the real special effect is the irony of seeing the once ultra-suave star of Saturday Night Fever and Grease the last remains of the great Hollywood musical era attempt to revive the genre by playing a 300-pound battleaxe.
The success of Hairspray, of course, might do just that: It gives kids too young to know the meaning of the word "rave" reason to get up and dance in the aisles. All of which means that, despite his half-assed drag routine, Travolta will have successfully pulled off yet another of his countless career reinventions. Let's just hope the next time he slips into his grandmother's nightie, he does it with balls-out bravado and not straight-male panic.
Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.