Monday, July 30, 2007

Two Good Seaweeds

Your rain and lightening slapped Farmboyz took it on the chin and decided to go to the movies on Sunday afternoon (after C made a superb frittata, and I made a disastrous Galkyd-laced painting of eggplant, zucchini and Hungarian peppers). The 3pm was sold out, but we got tickets for the 4:30pm (where else in the world but on the Upper West Side can you walk one block from your house and be inside a megaplex without an umbrella let alone a car?)

I am still softened butter from yesterday’s seaweed wrap. C gave me a spa treatment at The Spa at Chelsea Piers for my birthday. This is how we are, having learned that the best gift is often a totally impractical splurge that we would never allow ourselves in Real Life. My poor business-harried baby got himself a soothing massage while I chose the seaweed.

The buxom blonde and crystal blue-eyed lady who performed the treatment began by asking me (in what I suspect was an authentic Swedish accent) if I had any allergies, especially to seafood. She then explained the procedure. “First, I gonna exfoliate you and then I give you the gloves to take home. Then, I gonna apply lotion and then I gonna apply the seawid. Next, I gonna wrap you in a hot plastic shit and then hot cotton shit.” I tried not to laugh. What followed was heavenly, and while I was wrapped, she sprayed my face with a citrus concoction and performed a head massage that put me to sleep. Later, we lounged on the deck over the Hudson River and watched the chartered yachts come and go as the sun went down over New Jersey. Whirlpool, steam, sauna, eucalyptus, aloe and olive oil moisturizer. I am reduced to limp velvet. I want to stuff the thick terry robe into my bag just for the memory, but do not. I can barely walk to the subway. Back home, I pour a glass of Orvieto secco (savoring its rough flavor and raw grassy color) and open a recent biography of Machiavelli. I read three words and fall asleep.

But my purpose in writing is to review the new movie “Hairspray”. I have been eager to see this, having loved both the original John Waters film and also the Broadway musical.

Would Travolta add something to the definitive tracks of both Divine and Harvey Fierstein? Or, would he fail as miserably as did Bernadette Peters in her dreadfully stillborn revival of Gypsy?

I had read his comments about the extreme amount of thought he put into his decision to accept the role and his decision to play Edna as an aged and obese but still voluptuous Sophia Loren.

Despite the fact that there were some transcendent moments in his performance, when, carried above his own thinking by the power of the music and the choreography, you find yourself happily in love with his Edna, I think he was still the weakest part of the movie and an unfortunate choice for several reasons.

His vocal register was entirely misplaced. Perhaps he had tried out a number of possibilities, all of them unsuccessful, and resorted to his natural voice, hoping that the visual impact of Edna would surely define any voice that went with it. He had said in an interview that he had researched and delivered an authentic Baltimore accent. If this is true, there must be only two or three people left in America who employ that accent, because it is totally unrecognizable as indigenous to Baltimore. Why deliver an accent so unrecognizable (albeit etymologically perfect) as to be un-endearing and therefore unfunny?

Travolta’s Edna is heavy on agoraphobia and light on ferocity. She is a weak-chinned and fearful Laura Wingfield whom he never quite manages to set free from a diva’s imprisonment in fat even though the script calls for more than one moment of exalted liberation.

Travolta’s “Timeless” duet with Christopher Walken, one of my favorite songs from the Broadway version where it was a showstopper, was a bit disappointing. No sexual chemistry, and that is exactly what the song is about. I kept suspecting that Travolta should have taken the role with trust in the director who might have been better able to elicit a performance that was not a copy of the previous two standards while able to stand on its own fat legs.

If not for Harvey’s excellent turn as Edna, I’d be tempted to say that because the part was so perfectly written for Divine, anyone else would fail in it. Travolta has said that he did not want to play it as a man in drag, but as a real woman. If so, he should have devised a voice that would have helped us believe it, and he should have envisioned a woman with stronger passions and frustrations beyond a mousey and fidgety anxiety over carbohydrates. Maybe he just didn’t take the time to meet and understand Edna. Even John Waters did not fully understand the Edna he had created until one day, on the set of the original movie, when Divine first appeared and took his place at the ironing board. Waters reports that everyone cheered, and that Divine looked at him and said “No matter how hard you try, you can’t make me look less than beautiful.” It is exactly that inner conviction that is missing from Travolta’s performance.

Among the many successful turns were those of Nikki Blonsky who easily shoulders the entire package and delivers a perfectly lovable, spunky and energetic Tracy Turnblad, Michelle Pfeiffer as the scheming Velma Von Tussle, Zac Efron as the adorable Link Larkin (in one of the film’s most inspired moments, singing to a framed black and white photo of Tracy that sings along with him), and best of all, Elijah Kelley as Seaweed. Some actors winningly draw the audience into their face while singing and dancing in movie musicals, and he is one of them. While the camera is on him, you forget all and any cinematic devices and are swept away by his instinctive magnetism.

The same cannot be said for the sadly miscast Queen Latifah who delivers herself of Motormouth Maybelle with exactly the same breezy laziness that she brings to her television cosmetics commercials.

We were seated next to two very proper women of a certain age who had arrived at the theater hoping to see “No Reservations”, and had chosen “Hairspray” only because their first choice was sold out. They had seen neither the earlier movie nor the Broadway show. When the lights came on, I turned to them and said, “Sooo? What did you think?”


And that it is. I recommend it based on the music alone. Also, it is a fine example of the newer style of movie musicals established by Chicago and Moulin Rouge in which there are no slow parts that one must endure for the sake of plot motion.

I wonder, however, how much better it might have been with Baz Luhrmann directing the first ten minutes. He would have known how to fly over Baltimore and into Tracy Turnblad’s bedroom for the rousing “Good Morning Baltimore” in that style that makes your heart stop when you watch the opening of Moulin Rouge.

And why couldn’t Harvey Fierstein have played Edna? And although Ruth Brown died last November and was probably not up to recreating her Motormouth Maybelle, Darlene Love who currently plays the part on Broadway would probably have been a better choice. And why did they save “Mama I’m a Big Girl Now” until the end of the credits? According to Wikipedia, Ricki Lake and Marisa Jaret Winokur (two previous Tracies) sing this with Nikki Blonsky, but there is no good reason for clipping it from the body of the film and tacking it on at the end.

I agree with the ladies. Slightly less than wonderful, but definitely fun.


Huntington said...

Didn't Hot Plastic Shit open for Cher on one of her early 80s European concert tours?

amed said...

I agree 99% with your review of Hairspray. My only quibble? The casting (or fantasy recasting) of Motormouth Maybelle.

Queen Latifah is a competent actress and a pleasant singer, but she is no powerhouse in either metier. I found her performance not so much lazy as ineffectual. She simply didn't do what the character is meant to do - change the world with her sheer energy and the force of her convictions.

I have not seen Darlene Love's performance on Broadway, but I came away from seeing Hairspray the film wishing for a Maybelle who could absolutely steal the show. This character needs to be a monumental force in order to embody the aspirations of a whole people. She also must have a commanding presence and HUGE voice to differentiate herself from the whirling, wailing Dynamites with whom she shares much screen time. And finally she must have impeccable gospel chops to prevent the anthemic song delivered during the march scene from devolving into an anticlimactic dirge.

I can only think of one performer of the right age and "type" who could have done all that - Jennifer Holiday.

And the icing on the cake would be 1)the box office draw for all those who have read the press about her amazing talent but have never seen her perform and 2)a tangible connection to last year's musical hit Dreamgirls.

farmboyz said...

Jennifer Holiday probably could have done it.
Or maybe Etta James.
Or, and this is a stretch, Whitney...

David said...

I missed your birthday!!

I was out of town anyway, but I'm so bad about keeping track of people's birthdays, I'm sure you noted it in some earlier post and I completely lost track. Is your's the same day as Tornwordo's?

Glad you had a great day. I have no burning desire to see Hairspray the movie. I enjoyed the show and that is enough for me.