Wednesday, January 16, 2008


Nikki Blonsky (hello, goodbye) is perfectly okay in "Hairspray". But I found myself constantly wishing for Ricki Lake (the original and definitive Tracy Turnblad). Which, in turn, reminded me of a friend who, on seeing once ubiquitous third stringer Nydia Westman dither into view in some 30’s film, said quietly, "Oh, for Una Merkel…). Not that my friend’s particularly stuck on Merkel. He can take her or leave her, I suppose. But Westman’s a kind of feathery Merkel clone. She and Una look alike, sound alike – and both project the same sort of spinsterish second banana persona. They mine the same hit-and-miss terrain. Two scrawny hens eternally pecking the hard ground, foraging for laughs, all too often settling for less. But Merkel does it better. With perhaps a 60-40 success ratio. For Westman, it’s maybe 20-80. And consequently she ends up being defined by that difference. If you’d never seen Merkel, you might just accept Westman. But knowing there’s someone out there who’s simply better at selling the same kumquats, you wind up just putting up with her. It gives Westman the perpetual air of an also-ran. The Ricki-Nikki equation’s about the same. Ricki’s pretty good. Nikki’s just good enough.
"Hairspray" itself is reasonably diverting in spots. The choreography’s lively in the most neutral sense of the word – a lot of activity and movement, little of it compelling (although the "Welcome to the 60’s" number scores nicely). But a high-profile movie musical inevitably attracts comparisons with the best in the genre. "Hairspray" lacks the melodramatic flourish and visual ingenuity of "Dreamgirls", the free-wheeling creativity of "A Hard Day’s Night" or the disco ball perfection of "Saturday Night Fever".
Supporting players Amanda Bynes and James Marsden do extremely well in parts that - in less capable hands – might easily have disappeared into thin air. And teen heart-throb Zac Efron nails it, too – injecting just the right amount of gingerbread yumminess into dialogue like "Hope I didn’t dent your do, little darlin’". But the showier roles (like Michelle Pfeiffer’s surprisingly embarrassing villainess Velma) tend to fizzle. Allison Janney’s all over the place. One moment awfully good, the next just awful. Queen Latifah maintains an even keel – but while that means no lows, it also means no highs. And, by the way, if she’s going to channel Pearl Bailey (she did it in "Chicago" too) why not just give us a Bailey biopic and get it out of her system once and for all. That picture might be fun. Even good with the right salty script.
It would have to be a better script than "Hairspray"’s. The whole enterprise lacks any real ambition. Like "Grease", it’s aimed at – if not the lowest common denominator, then something damn close to it – say, people who think the Fonz is funny. Which kind of brings us to John Travolta. I know he wasn’t Fonzie. But some similarly duck-tailed greaseballs figure rather prominently in his resume. For "Hairspray" he trades in the ducktail for a bee-hive. But to debatable advantage. It’s kind of a tradition that Edna Turnblad be portrayed by a man. But that tradition, established by Divine amd Harvey Feierstein, has always hinged on a flamboyant drag-queen approach. Travolta decides to go for low-key naturalism and diffidence - in a way defeating the purpose of cross-gender casting, something that inherently calls attention to itself. The attempt at a softer, gentler Edna Turnblad is also compromised by Travolta’s profoundly creepy make-up. Any closer together and those eyes would make Edna a Cyclops. If warm and fuzzy womanliness was the goal, they might’ve considered casting an actual woman. I don’t know, let’s say Delta Burke. Don’t know if she can dance. But surely there’s some sweet, talented, full-figured older actress out there who can shake a leg and tug a heartstring. Still, I suppose the Travolta name helped sell tickets (something got people to go to "Wild Hogs"). Because, whatever its actual merits, "Hairspray" has made money. You’ve got to hand it to Travolta for one thing, too. He’s a terrific dancer. And even encased in that hideously uncomfortable looking fat-suit and make-up he still manages to strut his stuff pretty impressively. Otherwise, this strange semi-mutant Edna needs to go back to Metaluna for some serious re-tooling.

"Enchanted"’s another musical that’s bubbled along nicely at the box-office this year. As most people know by now, the first twenty minutes or so are presented as an old –style animated fairy tale. ("Sleeping Beauty" old, which is to say Disney meets Hanna-Barbera – not the Germanic jewel-box loveliness of "Snow White" ). A wicked queen throws heroine Giselle down a well, from which she emerges (at the other end) as a live-action Amy Adams stranded in modern-day Manhattan. The Big Apple’s presented as a sort of Hallmark Cards version of mean streets (this is, after all, a Disney musical). Numerous characters from the animated world pursue Giselle into her new environment to either help or hinder her. Romantic complications, some songs and a climax rich in special effects (a gigantic CGI dragon climbing up the Chrysler Building in a thunderstorm) bring it all to a reasonably satisfying conclusion.
Susan Sarandon’s passably good as the wicked queen/witch (her make-up in both guises is fabulous). But somehow, considering it’s the great Sarandon, I expected more. One yearns for – but doesn’t quite get - the voice summoned up from the pits of Old Vic Hell that, say Judy Davis or Saffron Burrows could’ve probably delivered. I mean even after all these years, the voices of the animated villainesses in Disney’s Snow White (Lucille LaVerne) and "Sleeping Beauty" (Eleanor Audley) are still good for a few uneasy shivers. Nevertheless, as I say, Sarandon gets the job done. James Marsden (the film’s Prince Edward i.e.Charming) is a fine actor and singer with matinee idol good looks. Unfortunately script and direction encourage him to play arch and he obliges. But the man’s better – with considerably less scope and screentime – in "Hairspray". "Enchanted" presents Patrick Dempsey as a Manhattan yuppie/single parent and Giselle’s initially reluctant protector – wisely allowing him to play to his strengths – solid, understated masculinity laced with a kind of genial uptightness. He invariably hits the right note (and though his actual singing’s kept to a minimum, he even handles that part nicely). Having seen "Sweeney Todd" and "Enchanted" within a week of one another, I’ve been subjected to enough massive close-ups of Timothy Spall’s gnome-like face and endless "comic" busy-work to last me a lifetime – and then some. Me no like. The actress who plays Dempsey’s high-powered New York girl-friend seems oddly cast – a sort of Sandra Bernhard without the funny. Plus I believe she’s a singer – yet I don’t recall her singing a note in "Enchanted". And surely the gigantic Disney machine should be able to cough up one talented, appealing tot without much trouble. Something went wrong here. Little Rachel Covey remembers her lines but looks fretful and constipated saying them. Don’t give up your day job.
And then there’s Giselle herself – Amy Adams, the girl who’s had critics all over the world penning love letters instead of reviews. I’m not quite that beguiled. She’s a sort of Sandy Duncan (albeit Sandy Duncan on a very good day) – a pleasant enough singer, a good enough actress, perky (not quite – but almost – to a fault). But I like my singing fairy tale princesses uber- beautiful. And Adams is no Kathryn Grayson. No Jane Powell. No Lesley Ann Warren. More than presentable ,for sure. Fairyland Princess, I don’t think so.
Like "Hairspray", most of the picture’s painless. But once the high-concept premise is established, the script doesn’t spread enough pixie dust on the cliches to get them air-borne. Still, "Enchanted" does manage to soar during one extended musical number. "That’s How You Know" actually succeeds in capturing the giddy feel-good glory of the best movie musicals. It’s not that the song’s that great (though it’s nice). But the arrangements’s insanely infectious – all syncopation and steel-drums. And the wide-open Central Park setting allows for plenty of well-deployed extras to keep the party cooking. Along with Adams legitimately coming into her own as the sparkling centre-piece of it all. Frankly I never wanted it to end. And I’ve already bought the soundtrack CD just to hear the song again. That five minutes or so of euphoria is more than enough to give "Enchanted" the edge over "Hairspray". After all – I don’t know about you – but even a mini-shot of euphoria can pretty much make my day.

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