Tuesday, September 04, 2007

A Tale of Two High School Fantasies: "Hairspray" and "Superbad"


directed by Adam Shankman
starring John Travolta, Christopher Walken, Michelle Pfeiffer, Queen Latifah, James Marsden, Allison Janney, Zac Efron, Amanda Bynes, Elijah Kelley, Brittany Snow, and introducing Nikki Blonsky


directed by Greg Mottola
starring Jonah Hill, Michael Cera, Bill Hader, Seth Rogen, and introducing Christopher Mintz-Plasse

I finally got around to seeing two movies that won over both critics and audiences this summer: “Hairspray,” the adaptation of the Broadway musical that was in turn adapted from the 1988 John Waters film, and “Superbad,” the raunchy teen comedy that marks the latest of the Judd Apatow-produced hit parade. Two very different movies; and yet there was an odd convergence. Both put a provocative spin on age-old teen fantasies (becoming a star; finding love; getting laid), while at the same time, both strive with almost puppyish earnestness to ingratiate and entertain. And the end result in both is just enough of an edge to raise some eyebrows, but not so much as to obscure the films' inherent sweetness.

While I enjoyed both, I have to admit “Hairspray” left a bigger smile on my face. Partly because I have a soft spot for Broadway musicals, partly because there’s just something irresistibly infectious about its shiny happy spirit and the rollicking energy of its song-and-dance numbers. I haven’t seen “Hairspray” in its previous incarnations, but I certainly didn’t feel like anything was lost in translation. Set in Baltimore in the early 1960’s, it remains an engaging if willfully wishful parable of diversity as the great unifier, its messenger a plus-sized high school gal who loves to shake her groove thang and embraces integration as “the new frontier.” Her name is Tracy Turnblad (Nikki Blonsky), and at the story’s outset her greatest dream is to appear on “The Corny Collins Show,” a daily TV dance program featuring a proto-Mickey Mouse Club of local teenage dancers—all white, of course, except when “Negro Day” comes around once a month—and to attract the attention of Link Larkin (Zac Efron), the blue-eyed heartthrob of the show. Later, after learning some funkadelic moves from the stars of “Negro Day,” Tracy expands her ambitions to making the Corny Collins Show fully integrated. The most formidable obstacle to these goals: Velma Von Tussle (Michelle Pfieffer), the racist, antisemitic, anti-cellulite TV station manager and mother of bitchy blond Amber (Brittany Snow), Tracy’s chief rival for stardom (and Link’s heart).

Does Tracy beat the odds and achieve her heart’s desire? Do you even need to ask? “Hairspray” drives so single-mindedly towards its upbeat resolution that it seems almost beside the point to notice how far removed the story (particularly the racial narrative) is from social and historical reality. Nonetheless, it’s hard for the nagging, snuffly little voice in me not to note the sad fact that integration didn’t happen so smoothly and in many ways largely failed. Even if the point is to celebrate the cultural integration of African Americans and their fantabulous innovations, the snuffly voice still takes issue with the simplistic equation “Hairspray” seems to draw between the African American influence and the sexing up of whitebread pop culture—even though it’s equal parts tongue-in-cheek and sincere tribute.

Still, these twinges of liberal discomfort take nothing away from watching Tracy and her allies sing and dance their way so ebulliently to their well-deserved happy ending. Director Adam Shankman may not exactly boast an impressive resume (“The Pacifier,” “Cheaper by the Dozen 2,” and, ugh, “The Wedding Planner,” anyone?), but he certainly knows a thing or two about good choreography and how to showcase it on camera. And even as he bathes the entire film in a period-appropriate Technicolor-esque glow, he inserts visual gags and sly prods at the ’60s (like the aerosol-induced beehive ’dos or the sight of pregnant women smoking cigarettes and downing martinis), that along with the wink-nudge lyrics and dialogue, keep a spark of John Waters subversiveness alive.

That said, the heart of the film lies not in its irony but in the enthusiasm of its performers—especially the younger ones. For the most part, the more established stars (Pfeiffer, John Travolta, Christopher Walken, Queen Latifah) deliver performances that are competent without being inspired; Travolta in particular is surprisingly muted as Tracy’s mom, though he shows he can still cut a rug even when in drag and a fat suit. The one real standout among the adults is James Marsden as the golden-throated “Corny” Collins. He’s absolutely note-perfect (literally and figuratively) as the host who shows some genuine soul underneath the slick of his pearly whites and perfect hair. Allison Janney, too, gets some good laughs out of a minor role.

It’s the youngest cast members, though, who really give “Hairspray” its lift. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.) Right from the effervescent opening number (“Good Morning Baltimore”), Blonsky is so winsome as Tracy that she pulls off the tricky feat of being incorrigibly perky and sweet without being the least bit annoying. Ditto Amanda Bynes as Tracy’s best friend, Penny Pingleton. Pretty-boy Efron shows enough talent to live up to his “High School Musical” hype, though he’s outshone if not upstaged by the electric Elijah Kelley as Seaweed, the black boy who teaches Tracy the moves that make her a star. “Hairspray” is at its best when one or more of these kids are singing and dancing. It flags for a stretch in the middle as it gets caught up in subplots involving the elder characters, but picks up again towards the end and goes out on a high note with the final number, the deliriously catchy “You Can’t Stop the Beat.” If you don’t find yourself shimmying in your seat or at least bobbing your head, then, well, you must be a square. And not the kind it’s hip to be.

Like “Hairspray,” “Superbad” has some good throwback music, but in other respects it’s considerably more contemporary in its sensibilities. Or at least it affects to be. Actually, once you set aside the endless f-bombs and the don’t-go-there-oh-shit-he-did-just-go-there gags, what you have is a tale of two high school geeks who fantasize about sex with hot chicks but who don’t have the first clue how to approach the girls they like. A tale, in other words, that’s timeless. Jonah Hill and Michael Cera play the potty mouth (Seth) and the straight man (Evan), respectively. They’re a decent comic team, though Hill seems to be trying a little too hard to earn his laughs, while Cera (who’s really rather adorable—actually they both kind of are) doesn’t seem to be trying quite hard enough, though maybe he’s just going for subtle and understated. Wrong movie if so. Still, their characters’ friendship is at once funny and believable, and grounds the movie. There’s a turning point when we discover that a large part of Seth’s obnoxiousness is rooted in his insecurity about the friendship, and in this moment “Superbad” sounds a surprisingly poignant and mature note.

I called “Superbad” a tale of two geeks, but I should have said three geeks. Christopher Mintz-Plasse makes a memorable screen debut as Fogel (aka “McLovin”), the third wheel to Seth and Evan’s duo. Mintz-Plasse looks exactly like the kind of guy who was always getting stuffed into junior high and high school lockers, and he plays that for all it’s worth. Some of the movie’s funniest lines owe most of their humor value to his geek-tastic delivery. Unfortunately, he’s saddled with the weakest and most forced storyline, involving two cops (played by Bill Hader and Seth Rogen) who so far as I can tell resemble no cops known to humankind. They seem to have wandered in from another movie—like one of those SNL skits-turned-full-length-features—and at about that quality level.

The only characters in “Superbad” less convincing than the bumbling cops are, alas, the girls. I’m not giving anything important away by observing that by the end of the movie it’s clear our heroes have either gotten with their dream girls or have a real shot at getting with them in the not-too-distant future. I suppose this is no harder to buy than the idea that an overweight girl could supplant a slim blonde in the affections of the cutest boy in school. The only difference is that said girl got her man by dancing up a storm and inspiring him to fight for social justice, while all the “Superbad” geeks had to do to impress their gals was to get wasted and not act like complete tools. It may be that “Superbad”’s fantasy is closer to reality than “Hairspray”’s. If so, I prefer the world of “Hairspray.”

GRADES: “Hairspray” B+; “Superbad” B/B-


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