Film » Film Review

Hairspray and Eagle vs Shark

The latest Hairspray is a smash; plus, a teen-nerd comedy from New Zealand

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A different kind of American pie: John Travolta and Nikki Blonsky eat to the beat in Hairspray. - PHOTO BY DAVID JAMES/ NEW LINE CINEMA
  • Photo by David James/ New Line Cinema
  • A different kind of American pie: John Travolta and Nikki Blonsky eat to the beat in Hairspray.

The 1988 film Hairspray was indie-film maverick John Waters' valentine to his high school best friend, the flamboyant, plus-size drag queen Divine. That film, the subsequent Broadway musical, and now the film of the musical have had extraordinary persistence in pop culture. A utopian view of rock 'n' roll and rhythm 'n' blues as a powerful force for good, Hairspray embraces the pleasantly plump and the oppositely colored, without explicitly voicing Waters' real plea for acceptance of the differently oriented.

Hefty, peppy Tracy Turnblad, played here by newcomer Nikki Blonsky, is obsessed with the local Baltimore TV dance party, The Corny Collins Show, and its teen heartthrob, Link. Her favorite monthly episode is Negro Day ("I wish every day was Negro Day," she enthuses) and after sharing detention with a bunch of kids who dance a lot better than the simpering TV regulars, she joins hands with her friends from the other side of town and marches for integration.

But, Hairspray has always really been about Tracy's mother Edna, played in the original movie by Divine, on Broadway by gravelly voiced Harvey Fierstein, and here by John Travolta. Edna, beloved by her husband (a bemused Christopher Walken) and daughter, has been in self-imposed isolation because of her weight, yet triumphs over her fears, heedless of what the slim and self-righteous have to say.

Travolta wears a fat suit and frankly doesn't seem all that much bigger than he did in Lonely Hearts. But the movies' No. 1 song and dance man is clearly enjoying himself, digging the universal high spirits and the undercutting of his former image as a slender discoing heartbreaker in Saturday Night Fever. But, perhaps he is also doing penance for his role in Grease, a movie that said you have to completely make yourself over to be worthy of love, while Hairspray asserts that you can be yourself and still be catnip to the cutest boy in town.

Let there be no mistake, America loves musicals. They run endlessly on Broadway (Hairspray debuted in 2002 and is still going strong), and on top of the TV heap is American Idol: chock-full of show tunes. And take recent movie hits: Dreamgirls, Ray, Walk the Line, all musicals. Every classic Disney cartoon: a musical. Any film with a wall to wall pop soundtrack, regardless of genre—sorry, haters—­they're all musicals!

Hairspray's canny casting includes Zac Efron as Link, the current star of the juggernaut TV smash High School Musical. Director-choreographer Adam Shankman keeps the euphoria high, and Waters himself blesses the proceedings with a Hitchcockian cameo as a flasher. Hairspray, script originally by Waters but adapted and with songs by Marc Shaimen and Scott Wittman, has been progressively sanitized, naughty but innocent, a po-mo pastiche decked out in teased hair and fluffy petticoats, acknowledging that the past isn't quite as rosy as we remember. Shimmy shimmy shake yourself, anyway. —Laura Boyes

Hairspray opens Friday throughout the Triangle.


Jemaine Clement and Loren Horsley as the eagle and shark - PHOTO BY MATT GRACE/ MIRAMAX FILMS

Miramax Films reportedly purchased the theatrical rights to Eagle vs Shark, a would-be Napoleon Dynamite, after viewing a five-minute trailer at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival. It is easy to understand why, since this New Zealand black comedy works best in small doses. When protracted over its nearly 90-minute running time, the results are monotonous and repetitive, less a stick of dynamite than a teensy firecracker that starts with a bang only to quickly dissipate.

Indeed, this feature film debut by Kiwi director Taika Cohen (aka Taika Waititi) has been obligingly compared to that 2004 indie smash, since both movies are about societal misfits (see: nerds) floundering to discover their relevance and self-worth. The more apt correlation, however, might be the fact that each script was workshopped at Sundance labs, seen by many as a mass-producer of pseudo-indie treacle. While Dynamite had its vehement detractors, I found it an amusing take on the instinctual impulse toward achieving success by a postmodern collection of non-rebels without a cause or clue.

By contrast, Eagle vs Shark wants to be about many things but ends up meaning very little. Lily (Loren Horsley), a wistful, timid fast-food worker, becomes smitten with one of her customers, another oddball named Jarrod (Jemaine Clement, co-star of the HBO series Flight of the Conchords), who whiles away his days working in a video game store and hosting costume parties where guests dress up as their favorite animal—hence the film's title—and compete in a virtual combat tournament. Lily's savant-like skill at video gaming captures Jarrod's fancy, and soon the two are embroiled in a night of awkward coitus and an equally tenuous relationship. This opening act has its share of chuckles and establishes Lily as shy but sweet and Jarrod as ingenuous but inconsiderate. Rather than Dynamite, their offbeat coupling is more reminiscent of the dysfunctional love-match between Dawn Wiener and Brandon in Todd Solondz's Welcome to the Dollhouse.

Problems ensue when Lily and Jarrod travel to his hometown, where Jarrod aims to realize a revenge fantasy by killing his erstwhile high school nemesis. While Jarrod preoccupies himself with an inept training regime and neglects Lily, she bonds with Jarrod's eccentric family, a collective of archetypal Tenenbaums that includes a disconsolate father (Brian Sergent)—wheelchair-bound but fully able to walk—who continues to mourn the untimely death of Jarrod's golden-boy brother, with whom Jarrod futilely fails to compare. We also learn, with precious little explication, that Jarrod has a 9-year-old daughter (Morag Hills) he rarely sees, who is being raised by his sister.

Although Horsley's performance is endearing, Lily strangely morphs from shrinking violet to blooming confidant with nary a tangible transition. Indeed, a lack of consistent mood and cohesive narrative eventually beset a film that is quirky for quirky's sake—as final proof, witness the vapid stop-motion animation of half-eaten apples that periodically pops up. Eagle vs Shark is a kaleidoscope of kookiness reflective of little except its own pretense and the influence of its cinematic predecessors. —Neil Morris

Eagle vs Shark ends Thursday at Colony Theatre.

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