In 1988, before the opening of John Waters’s Hairspray, I found the Prince of Puke—the man who ended Pink Flamingos with his homicidal heroine scooping up and eating a fresh doggy turd—gleeful at having made a liberal teen-message movie with a PG rating. Of course, it was a satire of teen-message movies, starring a 400-pound transvestite (the late doggy-turd eater Divine) as the chubby heroine’s mother. But the subversiveness eased under the radar. Waters liked when I called it a family movie the Bradys and the Mansons could adore. He only wished it were rated G. (He added that he wanted to make an X-rated film with no nudity, violence, or four-letter words: “It would just be so offensive to peoples’ values.”) The emergence of Hairspray as a hit Broadway musical was the ultimate joke. Now busloads of suburbanites could thrill to what began as a gay boy’s wet dream of the fusion of early rock and roll and outlandish middle-class tackiness.
Adam Shankman’s movie of the Broadway Hairspray gets better as it lumbers along, but there’s something garish about its hustle—it’s like an elephant trumpeting in your face. Every number is a showstopper: pumping arms, ecstatic frugging, hyperactive editing, climax on top of climax. The songs have the same manic pitch and blur together; there’s nothing as seductive as the centerpiece of Waters’s movie, the sinuous “Limbo Rock.” The musical opens with our heroine, the hefty Tracy Turnblad (Nikki Blonsky), popping out of bed and bursting into “Good Morning, Baltimore,” a cheerfully oblivious celebration of her seedy, lower-middle-class block. (Watch for the Waters cameo.) It’s a crowd-pleaser, and Blonsky’s voice is sweet and not too piercing. But Tracy’s delusional optimism has already peaked: How much higher can she go? When she lands a spot on her favorite TV program, the local teen-dance showcase The Corny Collins Show, and becomes a sensation, the campiness has no zing. It seems like a world of Village idiots.
It was Divine, as Tracy’s overprotective mother, Edna, who lifted Hairspray into camp heaven—and Divine and her splendid trashy baggage who’s most painfully missed. On Broadway, the lovable Harvey Fierstein was at least a resourceful queen. For most of the film, John Travolta is a glaring mistake. For some reason, his face is ballooned with latex that hides his most endearing feature, that goofy cleft chin. With his studied Baltimore accent, he’s soft and shapeless, his casting a stunt with no reason for being except as a stunt. But then something magical happens. Travolta has a number, “(You’re) Timeless to Me,” with Christopher Walken as Edna’s dim, doting husband, Wilbur. The song is in a different key, in a lilting, big-band style, and Walken is a musical pro (and scandalously little used in that capacity). When Travolta joins him in a dance, tentatively but with blooming grace, the performance comes together. (It’s also the only number that isn’t edited by a Benihana chef.) Later, Travolta reprises a Grease move, and it doesn’t feel cheap: It’s a reminder of his underused gifts.
As the melodrama takes hold, Hairspray becomes more involving. Waters based The Corny Collins Show on Baltimore’s The Buddy Deane Show, which came smack up against the civil-rights movement: No one knew what to do about the prospect of whites and “Negroes” dancing together. Michelle Pfeiffer plays Velma, the show’s brittle manager and the mother of its blonde diva (Brittany Snow), and it’s a marvelous turn: hysterically stylized, as if her Catwoman had joined the cast of Dynasty. Velma wants both Tracy and the coloreds off the air, and gets her chance when the girl becomes a regular at Negro platter parties (“hotbeds of moral turpitude”—but overseen by a disappointingly vanilla Queen Latifah) and civil-rights protests. Tracy’s best friend (Amanda Bynes), a blithe simpleton, is enraptured by a fresh-faced black dancer (Elijah Kelley) and twitters that now that she has tasted chocolate, she’s never going back—about as racy as the movie gets. The boisterous finale, “You Can’t Stop the Beat,” would have more punch if Marc Shaiman’s score weren’t so homogenized, with so little distinction between the white and black numbers. Hairspray doesn’t just preach color blindness. Its Utopia is also color deaf.
Interview is a two-actor psychodrama that evolves into a cat-and-mouse game, with each character getting the upper hand. It’s rife with hairpin emotional turns, deceptions, confessions, and dredged-up secrets. I’ve sat through so many claustrophobic examples of the genre I forgot how exhilarating, how pure a great one could be. Interview is a great one—electric as theater and cinema. Steve Buscemi adapted it (with David Schechter) from a 2003 film (not incendiary) by the murdered Dutch director Theo van Gogh. He plays Pierre Peders, a politics and war correspondent who’s ordered to interview a gorgeous (and famously vapid, promiscuous) movie and TV star, Katya (Sienna Miller). She feigns ordinariness but radiates entitlement. He wears his contempt like a boutonnière. The nightmare celebrity interview: I’ve been there. In a few choice exchanges, you’re bludgeoned with the artificiality of the exercise—cynical journalist meets star with fortresslike defenses in sterile setting. (See Jancee Dunn’s fun memoir, But Enough About Me, for a dissection.) Tensions escalate. He calls her “Cuntya,” she tells him to fuck himself, end of interview. But not end of Interview—which somehow relocates its antagonists to Katya’s vast Tribeca loft for a game of psychological spin the bottle.
In school, I spent weeks breaking down an Ibsen masterpiece into dramatic “beats”: small units of dialogue that end in sudden reversals or shifts in focus. Good writers, good directors, good actors, know the change of beat is the pulse of any scene. Buscemi is a brilliant writer, director, and actor, and each beat in Interview is crystalline. Katya’s cell phone goes off with a ring that sounds like a dog yapping: irritating as hell. Pierre watches Katya on her phone on her bed, her long legs in the air, the actress erotically in tune with her beautiful “instrument.” Pierre lacerates Katya for lack of talent in everything but seduction, Katya shows her power by coming on to and rejecting him, Pierre snaps he doesn’t fuck celebrities, Katya hisses she doesn’t fuck nobodies. As Pierre grows more drunk and devious, our sympathies begin to turn. We see that Katya’s counteroffensives are a mark of sanity.
I wonder if Sienna Miller came up short as Edie Sedgwick because, no matter how hard she tried (and how good she was), she couldn’t be a blank, a non-actress. She’s a stupendous actress. Her Katya is lazy but wily—and increasingly turned on by the game she keeps insisting she doesn’t want to play. The dance—the surrender that’s really a tease—keeps her en pointe. In some ways, the last half-hour is a letdown. Things come to a melodramatic head: The evening ends with a winner and a loser, a hero and a villain, instead of staying tantalizingly amorphous. But the grip of Interview never slackens. This is the movie with the beat you can’t stop.
As they proved in their last collaboration, 28 Days Later, the director Danny Boyle and the writer Alex Garland can steal from everyone and still make you feel as if they’re blazing new ground. That last film played like all of George Romero’s Living Dead pictures jammed together and pixelated—but it was good! So is Sunshine, in which they’ve taken 2001 and Tarkovsky’s Solaris and Silent Running, mixed in stuff from save-the-earth pictures like The Core and Deep Impact, and thrown in a cheesy climax out of Alien. The first hour and change is gangbusters, the last part unnerving enough to get by.
The best thing they do is put the eeriness back into space travel. Our team of astronauts and scientists is en route to the dying sun with some kind of massive nuclear bomb—they’re going to put a sun inside the sun. (I haven’t checked the science, but presumably it’s quite sound.) (Kidding.) The sun is a mystical object: It magnetizes people as it incinerates them, and it gives the reflective panels on the long ship (and the pressure suits) a golden radiance. It bestows life, and it drives people crazy. The ambient score by John Murphy and Underworld is hypnotic and ominous—like solar winds converted into music.
Sunshine is overheated—a compliment and, later, a dig. Boyle mixes streaky, tricked-up, disorienting close-ups with longer establishing shots, but in the climax, it’s hard to sort out the images; the thing is almost abstract. By then, most of the characters have either heroically sacrificed themselves or been murdered. Happily, we still have Cillian Murphy, whose otherworldly blue eyes make him just about the coolest space protagonist imaginable.
Steve Buscemi used the late director Theo van Gogh’s old cinematographer during the production of Interview. The politically outspoken van Gogh was, of course, murdered in 2004 by an Islamic extremist, shot eight times while riding his bike to work in Amsterdam. The killer (who’s now serving a life sentence) attached a note to his dead body (with knives, no less), denouncing Western governments and Jews. Interview is the first of three planned van Gogh remakes; Stanley Tucci and John Turturro are set to adapt Blind Date and ’06, respectively.
Directed by Adam Shankman. New Line Cinema. PG.
Directed by Steve Buscemi. Sony Pictures Classics. R.
Directed by Danny Boyle. Fox Searchlight. R.