Talking Movies

July 24, 2019

From the Archives: Hairspray

The first deep dive into the last remaining cache of pre-Talking Movies archives pulls up one of James Marsden’s two quite mad 2007 feel-good musicals.

Baltimore, 1962: a young girl dreams of being picked as a dancer on a local TV show. She may be overweight but she can dance and her friendship with a black dancer may just be the beginning of the end for the racist policies of the network…

If you’ve watched Ugly Betty you’ll remember the joyous scene where Betty’s nephew Justin, stranded on the Subway while trying to get to Broadway, entertains the other passengers with a spirited rendition of Hairspray’s opening number ‘Good Morning, Baltimore!’. As show-openers go it’s quite a tune and it sets the tone for the rest of this film, joyously upbeat with a healthy serving of camp outrageousness, as can be seen in John Waters’ cameo during the song, which is far too good a comic moment to ruin here. Like Ugly Betty, Hairspray’s campness gives it a licence to make all manner of outrageous gags. Consider Corny Collins’ (James Marsden) lyrics introducing his show: “Where nice white kids lead the way/And once a month we have Negro day”. The music is at all times bouncy, apart from one suitably sombre ballad sung by Queen Latifah during a civil rights march, but it’s the lyrics that take your breath away over and over again with their barbed wit.

Tracy Turnblad is handpicked for the Corny Collins’ show after he sees her new moves, learnt from a black dancer (Elijah Kelley) in detention (in a typical gag only black kids and fat white kids seem to get detention in this school). Amber, the lead dancer, is fiercely resentful of this and her mother, the network director, goes all out to get Tracy off the show and get rid of her corrupting influence; she thinks TV should “push kids in the white direction”. Michelle Pfeiffer’s first song, done in the style of Marlene Dietrich, is a delicious introduction to her Aryan villain Velma Von Tussell. The large ensemble does justice to this camp material with a serious subtext. Zac Efron channels his inner James Dean as moody hunk Link (with whom Tracy falls head over heels in love) while Amanda Bynes is a revelation as Tracy’s best friend Penny Pingleton, gone are the irritating tics displayed in She’s the Man and in their place genuine comic timing. John Travolta is hilarious in drag as Tracy’s mother, who hasn’t left her house since 1951 because of anxiety over her weight. His song and dance duet with Christopher Walken is a highlight.

The film does sag a bit towards the end and you fear it’s running out of steam as the savage reality of racism deflates the camp exuberance but then the mad logic of musicals (think Singin’ in the Rain) comes into operation and the finale comes up trumps. It’s always sunny in Baltimore.

4/5

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April 21, 2018

From the Archives: 27 Dresses

The second deep dive into the pre-Talking Movies archives finds a review which gets quite thoroughly side-tracked by James Marsden.

This film is meant to be about perennial bridesmaid Jane Nichols in her quest to finally be the one walking up the aisle at her 28th wedding. Katherine Heigl though is, surprisingly, too bland in the lead to hold our attention so it should really be titled Everything Goes Right for James Marsden. If you’ve been following the career of poor Marsden you will have seen him lose the girl to Wolverine and Superman and get stitched up royally by Lena Headey in Gossip. 2007 represented something of a breakthrough for Marsden as he managed to at least not get screwed over in Hairspray before in Enchanted he finally got a girl…not the girl admittedly, but still it was one more girl than he’d managed to get up to that point. Now finally Marsden appears in a film where the script’s structure makes it clear that, barring genre-bending catastrophes, he has to get the girl.

27 Dresses won’t change the world of romantic comedies but it lacks any bite whatever. Marsden, a cynical reporter stuck in a hellish job writing romantic froth about society weddings, meets lovelorn PA Jane. They, of course, don’t get on. He steals her appointments book to check his hunch that she’s a wedding junkie and so writes a story about her 27 weddings as bridesmaid/fixer. Aline Brosh McKenna, the screenwriter of The Devil Wears Prada, disappointingly forgets to bring any of that film’s acerbity to this script. Judy Greer does her best to have some fun with her role as Jane’s best friend, traditionally the role in romantic comedies that actors enjoy playing the most, but her bitchy lines aren’t a patch on Emily Blunt’s equivalent repartee in Prada. Sadly this film just lacks any pizzazz. Marsden who romped his way through Enchanted is having noticeably less of a good time here.

Perhaps he’s subdued by the presence of Malina Akerman as Jane’s obnoxious sister, who immediately snares Jane’s boss (Edward Burns-sleepwalking his way towards his paycheque) and asks Jane to be her bridesmaid and plan their wedding, ending all hope of Jane finally consummating her unrequited love for him. Akerman has appeared in some of the worst films of the past year, The Invasion, The Brothers Solomon, and The Heartbreak Kid and has one of the most grating screen presences imaginable. Theoretically pretty in a square jawed blonde sort of way she just lacks any sort of charm to make an audience care about her character’s various humiliations in this film, actually we cheer them on! Marsden is having some fun but 27 Dresses is just curiously anaemic as a romantic comedy. The funniest sequences involve montages of Heigl at various weddings which set up the closing visual gag which is sweet and funny but this is really one for Marsden completists only.

2/5

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