Hairspray (Adam Shankman, USA, 2007) is the kind of film for which it is immediately obvious that there is very little margin of error: it’s either going to be unwatchable or an unexpected success, and surprise, surprise, this musical version of John Water’s more gritty, much-loved satire falls in the latter category. By a wide margin, no less. One of the most buoyant theater experiences I’ve had in a long while—it keeps sweeping you deeper into its skewed, candy-colored world until the climactic “Miss Baltimore” pageant is reached and you stare slack-mouthed in disbelief at the way all the storylines and character arcs are being resolved, but it feels just so damn good that all ones wants is for the inspired lunacy to just keep on going, hoping it’ll somehow stumble onto a legitimate way to end all inequality and discrimination, in all its forms.
Much more adept and light on its feet in confronting and examining the defining social issues of the 1960’s America than Dreamgirls ever dreamed of (it gives faces to the pain, not just artistic montages tipping its hat to history issues taking place just outside the window), and even if the songs themselves aren’t terribly inspired–there’s no chance of this being taken as classic Comdon and Green–the cast performs with such enthusiasm and earnestness that its impossible not to buy into nearly every number wholeheartedly. Impeccably cast from top to bottom (I mean, an actress of the caliber of Allison Janney is given what, a half dozen lines?), the casting stunt of having John Travolta play Edna Turnblad, surely the film’s make-or-break gamble, pays off handsomely—he’s irresistible. A joy, and all the more savory because it is so unexpected.