Adam Shankman's Hairspray, adapted from the long-running Broadway musical, is like a sugar high that lasts 105 minutes. Yet it's a high that you don't crash from afterwards; days after seeing it, you may still find yourself in thrall to its infectious exuberance. Not only is the film the happiest surprise of the summer, it's the happiest surprise of the year - a giggly pop fantasia exploding with exhilaration and imagination. Audience members who don't like Hairspray won't be people who don't care for musicals; they'll be people who don't much care for movies.
Set in 1962 Baltimore, Hairspray is a joyful ode to the equalizing power of dance, and its entire tone seems to be taken from the resplendent, beaming grin and ass-shaking insouciance of Nikki Blonsky. (This debuting actress' presence is one of the best arguments I can think of for film adaptations of musicals - only a big screen could possibly do justice to that smile.) Her Tracy believes that prejudice is nothing that can't be overcome through positivity and a good shake-and-shimmy, and Hairspray, blissfully, agrees with her; Shankman and his designers present a candy-coated, deliriously Utopian vision of pre-Vietnam America, and its intentional, guileless naïveté is as utterly winning as its heroine.
There's a special sort of delight you get from movies such as Hairspray, where everyone involved appears to be having the time of their lives. Young performers seem to discover talents even they didn't know they possessed (Amanda Bynes and James Marsden have never been this good before), and old pros seem renewed of vigor. Michelle Pfeiffer - MIA for far too long - performs bitchy comedy routines with relish, and Christopher Walken should be mandated to sing and dance on screen every few years; enjoyable as he always is, Walken's reliable eccentricity is given a human context here, and he's more relaxed, and more touching, than he's been in ages.
Populated with stunning musical talents (Elijah Kelley's turn as Seaweed is particularly thrilling) and wonderfully enthusiastic dance sequences (choreographed by the director), Hairspray hits a brief, melodramatic lull about 40 minutes before its finale; for a spell, its messages outweigh the merriment. But the rest of the film is almost obscenely enjoyable, and I haven't even mentioned John Travolta's turn as Tracy's obese, agoraphobic mom, Edna. Playing the world's largest shrinking violet, Travolta - under loads of prosthetics - gives a remarkably nuanced performance, and you're so enraptured by his selflessness and sincerity in the role that Edna's eventual liberation of her inner diva makes you want to applaud. In this Hairspray, though, that's hardly a one-time occurrence.