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Shallow Waters

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When John Waters, the Rabelais of Baltimore, brought out "Hairspray" in 1988, it was a milestone in the mainstreaming of sleaze.

Focused on the backbiting world of a downscale, early-'60s "American Bandstand," this cheery tale of a plus-sized teenager who twists her way to the top while bringing racial integration to the airwaves certainly wasn't the assault on American sensibilities that Waters' earlier "Pink Flamingos" (1972) and "Female Trouble" (1974) were. But "Hairspray" still managed to come off as a hymn to the louche, not least owing to the presence of Waters' inimitable transvestite muse, Divine.

Now comes "Hairspray" the musical, via the hit Broadway production, directed by choreographer Adam Shankman. As one might expect, most of the remaining rough edges of Waters' already toned-down vision have been scrubbed away. What remains is a mostly buoyant, candy-colored diversion, leavened by perky performances and upbeat numbers whose lyrics and melodies you'll be hard-pressed to recall once you've left the theater.

The film opens with Tracy Turnblad (appealing 19-year-old newcomer Nikki Blonsky) showing us around her humble Baltimore neighborhood. In a fleeting acknowledgment of the film's edgier origins, she affectionately points out the local flasher, played, naturally, by Waters himself.

A big girl whose father (Christopher Walken) runs a gag shop and whose mother (an enormously padded John Travolta) is a laundress, Tracy dreams of joining the lanky kids on the local dance show, especially heartthrob Link Larkin (Zac Efron). She finds her way blocked by smart cracks about her weight and by the villain of the piece, Velma Von Tussel (Michelle Pfeiffer), who runs the operation as a showcase for her pretty, stuck-up daughter, Amber (Brittany Snow).

Sentenced to detention by unsympathetic teachers, Tracy is the only white girl in a room full of black students (it's 1962), notably Seaweed J. Stubbs (Elijah Kelley). There she discovers a whole new repertoire of dance moves that make it to the small screen only on the dance show's occasional "Negro Days," presided over by a resplendent Motormouth Maybelle (Queen Latifah). When Seaweed and Tracy's white friend Penny Pingleton (Amanda Bynes) fall for each other, the movie opens its final front against the close-mindedness that keeps the large and the dark off the airwaves, and the white and the black out of each other's arms.

Much of the pre-release publicity has centered on Travolta, who floats through the movie like a Hindenburg in sequins. His performance, however, is more notable as a feat of engineering than of acting. Although appealing, it seldom rises above the level of an amusing stunt.

More than anything it's the energy of the performers, rather than the script's bite or cinematic craft, that keeps things moving along. In one of the best numbers, "I Can Hear the Bells," Tracy imagines a romance with Link by exulting, "When we kiss in his car/Won't go all the way,/But I'll go pretty far." That is a high point in the lyrics. Mostly the songs are just occasions for moon/June/spoon banalities.

Nowadays, filmmakers don't get much practice at editing musicals, and it shows. During the big dance numbers, there's an affinity for close-ups of whoever's singing, and a disinclination to allow any wide shots to last more than three seconds. The result is a kinetic blur that might obscure some fine choreography. We'll never know.

The only serious missteps in the film come late. The climactic dance competition is delayed by the reigniting of Ma and Pa Turnblad's marriage, the subject of a bland little song that slows things down.

Then, when Motormouth leads a civil rights march on the TV station, the cinematography goes all serious, and shots of an unbowed Queen Latifah fade portentously to images of worn-down old men staring out of windows. That's more weight than this bouffant of a movie can bear.

Real John Waters movies suggest a tolerance grounded in the conviction that we're all battered freaks, united in our kinkiness. In the new "Hairspray," however, all that's requested is that we become part of one big happy demographic. But then, when it released "Pink Flamingos," New Line was an independent studio. Now it's a subsidiary of Time Warner. It's a new millennium. (PG) 107 min. S

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