One of my absolute favorite cinematic experiences is best personified in the character of Marge Gunderson, the pregnant Minnesota police chief in the Coen Brothers' 1996 masterpiece "Fargo."
I don't know how many times I've watched it. There are many, many things to appreciate, almost too many to count. There are so many rich characters, unforgettable sequences, sharp pieces of dialogue, and stunning images. It's one of the Top 10 films of the '90s.
What makes the film the miracle it is, though, is Frances McDormand's Marge Gunderson. In spite of all the great reasons to re-watch the film one towers above all of them: to spend time with Marge. I just love this character. She's just such a warm, joyful human being.
I bring this up because "Hairspray," the adaptation of the hit Broadway musical, itself an adaptation of the 1988 John Waters film, also possesses this same phenomenon. The film is set in 1962-era Baltimore and features teenager Tracy Turnblad (Nikki Blonsky.) Tracy is something of an outsider but it doesn't get her down. She's overweight and has eccentric parents. Her father Wilbur (Christopher Walken) owns and runs a corner store that sells toys, gags, and magic tricks. Her mother Edna (John Travolta) is also overweight, possesses low self esteem, and has not left the house in a decade.
Tracy and her best friend Penny Pingleton (Amanda Bynes) are obsessed with a local teenage dancing show, the Corny Collins (James Marsden) show. When one of the dancers on the show has to leave, auditions are held to fill the vacancy. Tracy cuts school to audition but is shot down - her extraordinary dance skills ignored - by the station's manager, Velma Von Tussle (Michelle Pfeiffer,) because of her plumpness and pro-integration politics. Tracy manages to bypass this obstacle, though, when she dances at a Corny Collins event and the host chooses her himself. When Tracy debuts on the show she immediately becomes a star. Tracy then uses that popularity to fight for the integration of the show. Up to that point the show had had a monthly "Negro Day" featuring black dancers separated from their white counterparts by a rope going across the room. Tracy declares early in the film that she wished every day was "Negro Day." With her newfound star power she fights to make that a reality.
The film has a long list of intensely likable characters: Tracy, Tracy's parents Wilbur and Edna, Tracy's friend Penny, Corny Collins, Tracy's love interest Link Larkin (Zac Efron,) the black dancer and Penny's love interest Seaweed J Stubbs (Elijah Kelly,) and especially Motormouth Maybelle (Queen Latifah.) It's just a fun experience to hang out with these characters.
No doubt of particular interest to many viewers is Travolta's cross-dressing turn as Edna Turnblad, a character originally played by Waters's star Divine. Does he pull it off? Does it work? Absolutely. Travolta is an actor who really does not get the respect he occasionally deserves. Yes, he's made his fair share of lousy pictures and we all love to mock him. Sometimes, though, sometimes, when the stars align and it's the right script, right character, he's able to shine. He's not one of those actors - like his "Pulp Fiction" co-star Samuel L. Jackson - who can come out unscathed no matter the project. But he does have talent. My favorites are "Primary Colors," "Face/Off," and "Swordfish." I can now add "Hairspray" to the list. It may be a bit weird, it may make some people feel a bit awkward, but it works.
As far as the quality of the song and dance routines, the film strikes me as a "Moulin Rouge" or "Chicago" in terms of having tremendous crossover potential. Musicals are just about the last genre on my favorites list but the film should still work for those with the lowest interest in the genre.
Here's hoping that more of Waters's films get musical-ized. Some are more obvious than others. "Cry-Baby" and "Serial Mom" seem like the most obvious choices.. Really, though, the one that would no doubt be the most fun? "Pink Flamingos." I can already picture the closing song and dance number: a rollicking, exhilarating sequence celebrating Divine eating dog crap. Let's see that musical win eight Tonys.