[Author's note: this review was originally to have been paired with I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry in a sort of half-assed "Gay and Anti-Gay" theme day. But when push came to shove, I really couldn't bring myself to pay money to see I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, and so this review must stand on its own.]

The film of the musical version of Hairspray is a film that I liked in virtually every respect, and a film which I loved in no respect. Which is without a doubt more than I expected going into it.

(Quick recap for the morbidly inattentive: Tracy Turnblad is a pudgy girl in Baltimore, 1962, who charms her way onto the the local teen dance program The Corny Collins Show. She is shocked - shocked! - to find that segregation is going on there, and she pretty much single-handedly brings racial comity to the city. Her heavily done-up hairdo is a sign of social conformity, hence "Hairspray").

To be perfectly honest, with the John Waters original still pretty fresh in my mind, I can't argue in good faith that there's any real need for this new Hairspray, but I found to be, on the whole, enough fun that (my fingers are rebelling against my brain for this next thought) it doesn't completely matter that this film isn't necessary.

Actually it's doubly unnecessary, for not only does it cover the same ground as the 1988 film only in a less interesting way, I have it on good authority that it covers the same ground as the 2002 stage production (which I haven't seen), also in a less interesting way. And certainly, it's one of those stage-to-film adaptations that leave very little doubt that as good as everything is in the film, it was consistently better on stage.

I don't mean performance-wise, because for all that these are mostly movie-star turns, they work out pretty well. In the central (though less central than in the previous film) role of Tracy, first-timer Nikki Blonsky is nothing shy of flawless. Perhaps the role is not so challenging as all that - what little edge the character used to possess has been quietly removed - but as far as gung-ho cheerfulness goes, Blonsky brings it in spades. Plus, she has a pretty much great voice, though God only knows if she could actually sing on stage.

The rest of the cast, by and large, does what you'd expect, or is just a little better: Christopher Walken, as Tracy's father Wilbur, reminds us all that yes, his career started on Broadway; Zac Efron, as the dreamboat star of The Corny Collins Show, Link Larkin, is a bland pretty boy in exactly the way that the role requires, and that High School Musical, which I accidentally saw about 15 minutes of once, suggested that he'd be great at. Et cetera, I'm not going through every cast member, except to say that I want to kiss whoever thought of putting Allison Janney in this film.

Actually, I do want to briefly say this about Michelle Pfeiffer, who does fine things with a small role that is saddled with a song that isn't "bad" so much as it is "very long and low-energy": I hadn't realized how much I missed her lo these five years, until I saw her again for the first time. First, she's as beautiful as ever, if not moreso. Second, I mean, Jesus, it's been five years, and that was White fucking Oleander. So kudos, and hoorah for the embarrassment of Pfeiffery goodness coming this summer, with two more vehicles for the actress in the pipeline.

Really, the only performance that demands a lengthy discussion is, probably unsurprisingly, John Travolta as the obese Edna Turnblad. Now, I've seen Divine in the role, and I can surely imagine what Harvey Fierstein would have been like, and Travolta is...different. The crazy thing about his performance is how very un-campy it is. Travolta's Edna is not exactly a "realistic" or "rounded" character, but she's very sincere. Which is an interesting choice for the actor, and dramatically intriguing, but I'm not sure it's right for Hairspray. This is a story that demands a larger-than-life caricature of womanhood in that role, and he is instead playing a woman. The only spot of camp in the performance is his very strange and probably ill-advised accent, sounding something like Dr. Evil doing an impersonation of Truman Capote. Except, distractingly enough, for the big finale, where he pretty much just sounds like John Travolta.

That's as may be; it's not a huge part and it's surrounded by perfectly unproblematic performances. Which leaves as the actual perpetrator of the film's sins the director/choreographer Adam Shankman, whose past work in either of those roles has been uninspiring (95% of his choreography credits) to diabolical (his directing work includes Bringing Down the House and Cheaper by the Dozen 2, among worse things). Pragmatically, Hairspray is surely the finest thing he has done in film, but even so, it bears the unmistakable mark of somebody who absolutely should not be permitted to direct.

The choreography is mostly decent, although the only number that leapt out at me as being great was "Welcome to the 60s." Shankman's big problem here is that the dances are mostly non-narrative. In the very best movie musicals, dance tells a clear story: "Never Gonna Dance" from Swing Time leaps out at me as it always does, or pick your favorite number from Singin' in the Rain. Here, that doesn't really happen. There are some fine experiments in pure choreography, but they don't do anything dramatic. The clearest example I can think of is "Run and Tell That," in which a half-dozen dancers move from a school room to a sidewalk to a bus. Why? No good reason. Particularly at the end, it feels palpably like Shankman thought to himself, "It would be fun to set a dance in a school bus," and so he did just that. This sort of thing abounds: dance because it's pretty, not because it means anything. That's fine in many contexts, but a movie musical is the wrong context.

Shankman-the-director does a terrible disservice to Shankman-the-choreographer by taking those strictly abstract dances and filming them badly. Many years ago, Fred Astaire famously declared that the only proper way to film a dance was to show the dancer's entire body, using the fewest number of takes possible, and while isolated deviations from that ideal have worked brilliantly (hello, Baz), history has tended to bear Astaire out. That is not the method that Shankman uses. His dances are very full of editing, indeed, and even worse full of close-ups, showing us Travolta's damn face during his big romantic number. The number that is by far served the worst by this is "You Can't Stop the Beat," the big-ass showstopper that brings out the whole cast for the finale. Well, Shankman sure does bring out the whole cast, and he tends to do it one at a time, so that while you're aware that there's a lot of dancing going on, it's mostly not in front of the camera.

But it's not Joel Schumacher's Phantom of the Opera, thank all that's holy.

And hey, as long as I'm closing out by complaining, let me just toss this in: I'm saddened to no end that this film (and seemingly the stage version) saw fit to cut out the original's "pothead beatniks" scene, featuring Pia Zadora and Ric Ocasek of The Cars. Dammit, that was funny! And weirdly topical! And honestly, you could almost certainly get Pia Zadora to reprise that role, if you just asked.

(Okay, high 6 or low 7? High 6, or low 7? Going for a coin toss on this one)