3 November 2007 (Sun), Tokyo
The previews of the movie had actually discouraged me from seeing it because of what seemed to be a strangely subdued performance by John Travolta, which suggested a take on the show that I wasn’t going to like. But curiosity got the better of me, and I was willing to give it the benefit of the doubt.
I was very pleasantly surprised for the most part. The story pretty much follows the stage show, and the director adeptly opens it up, especially in the opening number. I could have done without some of the changes, especially the silly marital spat that was created between Edna and her husband Wilbur. Here, the TV producer Velma goes to Wilbur’s toy shop to seduce him, managing after much trouble to get him in a compromising position just when Edna walks in. Edna gets angry and throws her husband out, only to take him back later, prompting the song “Timeless to Me”. There’s no reason to stick blindly to the layout of a stage work when transferring it to the screen, but the seduction scheme makes no sense at all – I don’t see any potential payoff for the TV producer, and the husband can’t possibly be so stupid in the face of her advances nor so impotent when discovered by Edna. If Hollywood has to do things differently, I wish it would at least do it logically. The plan hatched by Tracy to get into the TV studio was a bit too elaborate as well, depending as it does on assuming that the police will use her hiding place (a big hairspray display) as a battering ram. Whatever the stage show’s faults, at least the story proceeded logically from scene to scene. They might have done better to get a writer who was a bit more adventurous – say, John Waters. On the plus side, the movie did eliminate the irritating rhyming speech of Motormouth Maybelle in exchange for normal dialogue.
The biggest problem with the film was just what I was afraid of, John Travolta’s performance as Edna. He was so restrained in the role that it took all the joy out of it – why even use a guy if he’s going to play it so straight (so to speak)? I assume he was trying to put his own mark on the role after the flaming, over-the-top portrayals in the original film and Harvey Fierstein on stage. Their styles, though, not only came across as entirely appropriate to the show but lifted it into a whole other realm, making it more of an in-your-face experience. Their outrageous approach make them easily the most memorable characters in both media, and I don’t think that works to the show’s detriment. As overpowering as they are, they bring all the show’s contradictions – black vs. white, fat vs. skinny, individual vs. society – into focus, since they practically demand the “tolerance” that is the show’s underlying theme. While this may also be true of Travolta to some extent, his straight performance dulls the impact considerably, to a point where Rosie O’Donnell or Roseanne Barr, say, might have worked just as well. He was just going through the motions rather than really having fun with it; I wonder if he really thought he was supposed to be playing a woman. And where did he get that accent? He was not altogether incompetent in the role, and it was admittedly funny to see him dance in light of his Fever-Grease-Urban Cowboy past. Still, while he didn’t do irreparable harm to the film, he kept it from soaring. I couldn’t help wishing for a burst of Fierstein.
The cast was otherwise fine. The girl who plays Tracy was superb, as was Michelle Pfeiffer, though I wish they’d given her something other than that silly “Miss Baltimore Crab” song. I also really enjoyed Queen Latifah, who seemed much more at home here than in her overly serious performance in Chicago. This is the one role that came off even better in the movie than on stage. It took a while to warm to Christopher Walken’s Wilbur, and the best I can say is that I got used to him. He was a strange choice for the role. Others were all well chosen and quite good.
My only other complaint is that some of the effects were belabored, specifically the repeated images of inanimate characters (girls on poster, Tracy in photo, etc.) suddenly bursting into song. Once is funny, twice is acceptable, beyond that should have been cut. But that’s a small irritant. Overall, the movie was a better-than-average adaptation of a stage show, held back mainly by the Travolta miscasting and some of the sillier script changes. If it misses the go-for-broke feeling of the original musical (not to mention the original film), it works well enough on its own lowered standards. I would describe it as a pleasant enough two hours.