MOVIE REVIEW- Firm set: 'Hairspray' a dancing laugh riot

Hairspray may be bad for the ozone layer, but Hairspray is good for everything else. It's a singing, dancing, laugh riot that, because it originated in the mind of John Waters, is subversive– in a positive way.

After earning a reputation as the "sultan of sleaze" with Pink Flamingos and other cult favorites, Waters surprised everyone by going "PG" with Hairspray in 1988. Out was anything gay– unless you count casting Divine as the mother of the main character– and anything more sexual than a kiss. In were memories of Waters' high school days in Baltimore, in the early years of the civil rights movement when integration was a controversial concept.

Hairspray became a Broadway musical in 2002 with music by Marc Shaiman and lyrics by Scott Wittman. They've added a couple of new songs for the new movie, and screenwriter Leslie Dixon has rewritten a lot of the second act, cutting the jailhouse sequence ("The Big Dollhouse"); but Waters' concept shines through, as does his sense of humor. As he will tell you, he hasn't gone mainstream; he just stayed still until the mainstream moved to where he was.

Nikki Blonsky is the new star born as Tracy Turnblad, the full-figured bundle of energy whose dream is to dance on The Corny Collins Show, Baltimore's local version of American Bandstand. In 1962, Dick Clark's show was the closest thing to what American Idol is today, giving national exposure to youngsters and making them celebrities among their peers. Teenagers everywhere ran home from school to watch that show or its local equivalents, just as Tracy and her friend Penny Pingleton (Amanda Bynes) do in the movie.

Host Corny Collins (James Marsden) clashes with station manager Velma Von Tussle (Michelle Pfeiffer), who bows and scrapes to the sponsor (Paul Dooley) but otherwise rules with an iron fist. She represents the status quo and sees to it there's only one "Negro Day" a month, when black kids can dance in a separate but equal space under the watchful eye of record store owner Motormouth Maybelle (Queen Latifah). "We have to steer (the kids) in the white direction," Velma puns in a rare show of humor.

The show's reigning Baltimore Idols are Velma's daughter, Amber (Brittany Snow), and her boyfriend– or at least dance partner- Link Larkin (Zac Efron of High School Musical), both classmates of Tracy's.

Tracy gets a couple of lucky breaks. First she's sent to detention, where she's the only white student. There she meets Seaweed Stubbs (Elijah Kelley), who will become Penny's boyfriend, and learns some new moves; then she impresses Corny Collins at a record hop and is picked for an opening on his show, quickly becoming Amber's chief rival.

When Velma gets nasty and cancels "Negro Day," Tracy decides some things are more important than dancing and turns activist, leading a protest march with Maybelle. The comedy stops for a few minutes as Tracy speaks movingly of the need for the future to be better, and Maybelle sings the anthem, "I Know Where I've Been."

Did I mention Wilbur (Christopher Walken) and Edna (John Travolta), Tracy's hard-working parents? Wilbur owns and operates a novelty shop, the Hardy Har Hut. The family lives upstairs, where Edna runs an "occidental laundry" and never goes outside: "The neighbors haven't seen me since I was a size 10." The parents have a love song, "(You're) Timeless to Me," late in the movie. It's a sweet and funny dance number, choreographed by director Adam Shankman, but doesn't end with a kiss. Someone was obviously concerned about what mainstream audiences would accept in a movie about accepting differences.

Shankman's dual role must have caused him internal conflict. The film is so much about dancing, yet wide-screen photography and modern, frantic editing styles don't allow it to be shown to best advantage.

Travolta, following in the two-inch heels of Divine and Harvey Fierstein, is okay as Edna, really getting into the spirit in her dance numbers; but he doesn't have his predecessors' experience in drag, and it shows. With an otherworldly accent (except when he's singing), he looks and sounds like a character Lily Tomlin discarded as not up to her standards.

Pfeiffer is terrific, reminding us of her singing in Grease 2 and The Fabulous Baker Boys, and doing her most outrageous comedy since Married to the Mob. Latifah's back in Chicago mode, gunning for another Oscar nomination in a very different role. Allison Janney scores laughs as Penny's ultra-conservative mother. Speaking of Oscars, engrave one for costume designer Rita Ryack, who fills the screen with a colorful pastiche of period styles.

The young cast impresses too. Nikki Blonsky should have a career, but there are just so many Tracy Turnblad and Ugly Betty roles for young actresses, unless this movie's message reaches people and changes things. Efron doesn't have to worry. He can graduate from High School Musicals to College Musicals, then start over playing a teacher in High School Musical: The Remake. Or, being handsome and talented, he can branch out and do other things. Elijah Kelley should find the sky's the limit for him.

Waters is perfectly cast in an opening scene cameo. Rikki Lake and Jerry Stiller, from the 1988 film, also make appearances, Lake flanked by Shankman and Shaiman.

Hairspray celebrates how far we've come, finding humor in where we've come from, but doesn't pretend we don't have a long way to go. Interracial dating seemed a lot more edgy in 1988 than it does today, but it will still ruffle a few feathers, and if a man can't kiss a man who's playing a woman... Well, maybe there's a whole ‘nother musical to be written about that.