Knight at the Movies Archives
Gay filmmakers present a straight utopian world where anything is possible while straight filmmakers flog every gay stereotype
and then some for laughs in a fuddy duddy buddy comedy
Bette Midler must be kicking herself across the street. After deciding that it was a hair brained idea to turn the notorious John
Waters film Hairspray into a musical and turning down the chance to invest in it, she’s also not going to receive any percentage on
the film version that by all rights is going to be as big a smash as its Broadway antecedent. That’s because out director-
choreographer Adam Shankman and his all star cast led by John Travolta in drag have wrought an inventive, infectious little musical
gem, bright with pop art colors splashed across the screen, that is at once innocent, knowing and very funny. Even more than The
Little Shop of Horrors, this musical version of Hairspray is a triumph of the form from beginning to end – thanks in no small part to the
unerring gay sensibility of its creators.
I confess to having my doubts. Big ones. First off, I’m a gigantic fan of the original Waters film, a retelling of his youthful
exuberance for a local, Baltimore version of a Dick Clark American Bandstand style TV show and the dreamy teens that danced each
day on the show told via his lead character, the happy, innocent outsider Tracy Turnblad, a rotund “hair hopper” who just wants a
chance to show her stuff out on the floor and perhaps one day see it integrated it with the much hipper “negro day.” Waters’ movie
seems on reflection like a perfect culmination (minus the vulgarity) of his sharp ear for dialogue, eye for sight gag parody, and it’s
also the pinnacle of his preferred theme of the cool outsiders versus the boring conformists. Certainly it’s the most heartfelt movie
Waters has made (the inclusion of the topical race issue also deepens it; something his other pictures before and after have
lacked). And even in what is essentially a supporting part, in his final drag role as Edna the mother of the dance crazy corpulent
Tracy, Divine never fails to elicit laughs and affection.
When mother and daughter (Ricki Lake in her movie debut) walk out of Hefty Hideaway in their matching outfits and hairdos perched
on their stilettos the movie reaches a comic height that the stage show, expert though it was in its construction, never quite seemed
to match. Gone was the defiant edginess of Waters’ film along with many of his memorable fringe characters, streamlined to make
the musical more “family friendly.” Gone too were the wonderful period songs Waters lovingly chose to illustrate the early 60s period
with “Madison Time” the biggest loss. Though the character of Edna was still essayed by a large guy in drag, one still heard the
unmistakable voice of Divine (who died from respiratory heart failure not long after the movie’s release in 1988) in the part.
On the stage the breakneck pacing blurred the terrific score by real life couple Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman as it zoomed by.
Shankman slows things down just enough so that each song and dance is given real distinction and the editing of the musical
numbers is beautifully handled by Michael Tronick. Where Waters’ movie featured his signature sloppy, grungy look, Shankman’s
gleams with its impossibly bright lighting, costumes and sets and the movie sparkles with vitality. Laugh expert Leslie Dixon also
provides fresh, sharp zingers with her screenplay adaptation.
Shankman is aided in no small measure by his breathtakingly beautiful cast. Travolta and his vis-à-vis Christopher Walken in the
character parts aside, everyone else in the film, male and female (including the impossibly perky Nikki Blonsky with the zillion watt
smile as Tracy who was found in a nationwide casting call) are certified dreamboats. Not only are James Marsden as Corny Collins,
Michelle Pfeiffer as the evil station manager Velma Von Tussle, Queen Latifah as Motormouth Maybelle, and teen heartthrob Zac
Efron as teen heartthrob Link Larkin easy on the eyes but they’re easy on the ears and the Shaiman-Wittman score is served well by
all the distinctive star wattage. Shankman also adds cameos for himself, the Shaiman-Wittman’s, Ricki Lake, and Hitckcock-like at
the picture’s outset, Waters (as a flasher – naturally).
The gimmick of Travolta in the drag role and wearing a fat suit was my biggest stumbling block but the actor gives himself over to
the role. Sporting a Baltimore accent that becomes a comic weapon Travolta gets you to root for the housebound, tough but
vulnerable Edna and when she finally kicks up her heels at the film’s conclusion you experience the joy right along with her. It’s the
movie’s best comic sight gag and once and for all knocked the chip off my shoulder along with any doubts I had about this new, re-
imagined version of Hairspray.
Anyone else had the desire to see Ving Rhames nude (or just about), Adam Sandler playing a chick magnet on a par with Hugh
Hefner or both Sandler and his co-star Kevin James hold hands and pucker up? How about an arsenal of gay stereotypes used to
draw laughs that would even embarrass Mel Brooks?
You, too, huh?
All that and not much more are on display in I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry, yet another movie in which gays are used
as the longwinded joke for straights. This latest comedy to use the device of gays entering a once sacrosanct bastion of male
machismo (firefighters in this case) allows the filmmakers and actors the joint option of parodying both cultures. The men are
manly to a ridiculous degree while the queers are mostly so nellie they seem to have sprouted wings. Rainbow flags, Liza, Barbra,
straight men squeezed into the ridiculously tight spandex and rubber fashions associated with Our People, and a rousing sequence
scored to Whitney singing “I’m Every Woman” are sure to be prominently on display.
Most of all, of course, there must be a scene in which a straight male pretending to be gay must be forced to inspect, touch, fondle,
or somehow manhandle the breasts or body of the female hottie (in this case Jessica Biel) who is “safe” to show off her wares
because she’s hangin’ with her favorite “gal pal.”
Chuck & Larry, which has perhaps the most preposterous set up of any of these Straight Pretending to be Gay Temporarily comedies
(there have been many, many others), is distinguished from its forebears simply because it leaves no gay cliché unturned, no limp
wrist unexplored, and no chance to score more laughs off outdated gay stereotypes untaken. Even the inclusion of a Clay Aiken
reference, cameos by Lance Bass and Richard Chamberlain, finally out in his 70s, feels dated. The thin story hinges on the put-
upon James who portrays a widower with two kids (one who it is blatantly made clear is gay) who blackmails his best friend, the
macho Sandler, into signing up as his domestic partner so he can leave his pension to his kids should he get killed in the line of
After this set up, the movie, which is essentially a series of sketches loosely strung together, allows James and Sandler plenty of
room to riff on their patented comedic personalities (Sandler is snide, James is sweet) as they sail through the phony set ups (the
Las Vegas commitment ceremony with an actor doing the most offensive Asian impersonation since Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at
Tiffany’s, the two men forced to share a bed, etc., etc.). The moments that have nothing to do with the gay jokes and sight gags
and rely instead on Sandler and James’ crack timing provide the film with its freshest laughs.
The movie is stuffed with funny to not so funny cameos by a host of former “Saturday Night Live” players (Rachel Dratch, David
Spade, Dan Akroyd, etc.), the usual assortment of Sandler film co-stars, and most improbably, Dave Matthews as a fey boutique
store owner (he gets no dialogue, his montage coming during the Whitney song). None add much in the way of humor. The
movie's biggest sin, however, is that the gay references are unbelievably stale and just aren’t funny. But unbelievably, Rhames does
get the biggest laughs in the picture during the oldest of all the gay stereotypes the movie mines for its jokes – the “drop the soap”
in front of the gay guys shower sequence. Question: where did Rhames get all those scars?
I didn’t feel insulted by Chuck & Larry as one would suspect of an über queer film critic like myself. The picture was intermittently
funny and had a nice sub-theme in which the machos are Enlightened enough to take to heart “the word is gay not faggot” message
of tolerance espoused by Sandler at the climax. But the overabundance of outmoded clichés instantly dated the picture and when it
comes out on DVD it will match up nicely with the last big budget, fuddy duddy gay comedy made by straights – The Birdcage from
1996 – 11 years and a lifetime ago. The gay community has moved far, far away from the stereotypes these pictures portray and it
might be nice if someone would let these straight filmmakers in on this news flash.
*I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry didn't screen in time for my column print deadline and will appear there next week.
Gay as a Goose:
Hairspray-I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry
7-18-07 Windy City Times Knight at the Movies Column*
By Richard Knight, Jr.