The gentrification of John Waters marches on. Early Waters primarily targeted Calibanian boomers, shockin’ y’all as cinema’s Smut-Peddler-In-Chief, pulverizing WASP values with transvestites eating dog poop and sexual acts with bloody chickens. Hairspray marked the beginning of the late Waters’ Blue Period, in which he contemplated the larger meaning of his chicks with dicks. Waters’ 1988 Hairspray was his first PG film, as shocking an accomplishment as, say, David Lynch’s G-rated Disney movie. Still, the original had a social edge, in its own Watersian way: White panic as sexual insecurity.
In Hairspray, Waters’ subversiveness was in his subtlety: Instead of pelting the audience with smut to wound middle class values, he layered over racism with nostalgia. More or less, he used 50’s nostalgia to invite the mainstream audience into a celebration of itself, and then gave them a facial with the racism of the period. What we remember, however, is the tubby white girl shaking it and that her mother was played by a transvestite. In this way, Waters’ Hairspray was like The Jungle: We remember the meat grinding, we forget the socialism.
Here, hack extraordinaire Adam Shankman turns Waters’ musical into Cheaper By the Dozen 2 with songs. Shankman imports name-brand entertainers like Amanda Bynes and the singing jock from High School Musical and has them repeat numbers from the Broadway-cleansed extravaganza. It’s your high school’s production of Grease: A play about sex with a theatrical chastity belt strapped to its waist.
In Shankman’s telling, the Civil Rights Movement was mostly about how lame white DJs were. It lacks the sexual subtext of the original: Michelle Pfieffer shrews it up as the skinny mom who rigs dance contests for her daughter, but she seems only offended that negroes want to dance on television, not genuinely frightened by it. The fabulously named Nikki Blonsky throws her bulk around with joyful self-abandon, but the movie is too concerned with her relationship with white tv host Link Larkin (the aforementioned Zac Efron). More interesting is Penny Pingleton’s (Amanda Bynes) relationship with Seaweed (Elijah Kelley), but they’re too busy whipping the audience into a liberal fury with marches and protests than confronting an audience offended by jungle fever.
Perhaps that’s why Hairspray seems irrelevant: Interracial romance just doesn’t carry the shock value it did when Waters first threw it in the audience’s face. A better production would have let Motormouth Maybelle, charismatically played here by Queen Latifah, help sort this out for us.