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Hairspray (John Waters) 1988


    Set in Baltimore, Maryland in the early ‘60s, John Waters’ musical comedy Hairspray might be tame by the director’s standards, but it loses none of its subversive energy in its quest for a PG-rating. It takes place in a skewed world where an edgy hairdo can get you sent to special-ed classes and people take pictures of their televisions to preserve a moment, but, like most of Waters’ films, it still manages to have goodwill toward its cast of freaks. The movie features awesomely exaggerated period detail in every element of its design, from its towering hairdos to its comically run down slum, and in many ways it represents a considerable step forward in the quality of Waters’ filmmaking. He builds excitement and rhythm between his scenes in a way that he had rarely done before (though, I’m sure the nonstop, irresistible score, which is dominated by pop songs from the era doesn’t hurt), and even when he’s introducing serious themes, he never loses his irreverence. It’s amazing that the movie’s politics never get in the way of the fun, and Waters’ ability to turn important issues into cartoons is refreshing. The black characters aren’t necessarily hipper than the white characters, and that’s refreshing, because it’s not as simplified as you might expect. There are a variety of viewpoints regarding race, here, and if the villains’ viewpoints are grotesquely drawn, it might be more out of historical accuracy than narrative simplicity. Hairspray does sag in its last twenty minutes or so, as Waters begins to tie up the many narratives that he used throughout to give the movie its surprising variety, but it's a small price to pay for the pleasures that the movie has to offer.


    The cast deserves much of the credit for making Hairspray work, though much of their charm surely comes from the environment that Waters creates for them. Ricki Lake is delightful as the freedom-fighting dancing queen; her added weight only seems to give her extra bounce in her step. Inspired casting turns some of the film’s smaller parts into comic in-jokes that get more laughs than the scripted dialogue might suggest. Sonny Bono and Debbie Harry are great as Amber’s (Colleen Fitzpatrick) overbearing parents, who threaten her with Catholic school if she doesn’t comply with their plot to make her Queen of the Auto Show, so she can use her platform to fight to retain integration for some sketchy financial reasons. Waters himself has a hilarious cameo in which he casts himself as a shrink, of all things, but clearly the most brilliant casting in the film is the decision to give drag queen Divine the role of Edna, Tracy’s mother. Given winning lines like, “My diet pill is wearing out,” the actor knocks every one of them out of the ballpark with an apathetic drollness. The performance gives the movie such a freewheeling lunatic feel that we’re willing to accept anything in comparison to his walking anachronism.


* * * 1/2 


Jeremy Heilman