John Waters’ “Cry-Baby” (citywide) inspires an audience’s generosity because it’s a film that wants only to be loved. Watching it is a bit like checking out a grade-school talent show on parents’ night. The eagerness of the performers, their flat-out verve and innocence, wins you over. For a while at least.
Finally, the film wears you down. Waters’ camp facetiousness is probably best experienced in small doses. An entire evening of spoofy pop ‘50s takeoffs, complete with musical numbers, is cloying, particularly since so much of what Waters is making fun of--teen B-movies, rockabilly lyrics, ‘50s sitcoms--were partly spoofy to begin with.
The story line’s extreme predictability is intentional; it’s a good-natured way of making fun of us for still remembering and, deep-down, still caring about, all those timeworn scenarios about “misunderstood” juvenile delinquents and jukebox jamborees and teen love.
Johnny Depp’s Cry-Baby is a Baltimore hood with a heart of gold who sweeps pony-tailed Allison (Amy Locane) off her well-bred feet and into the fold of his leather-jacketed entourage, “the drapes.” In contrast to Allison’s crowd, “the squares,” who all look like spiffy debs and Brylcreemed gents, the drapes are a slouchy, scurvy bunch, particularly Wanda (Traci Lords), who reacts to a vaccination shot administered in the school gymnasium as if it was hot stuff, and Hatchet-Face (Kim McGuire), whose mug actually causes a cow to cower. On the brighter side, there’s Milton (Darren E. Burrows), who has a Bobby Rydell-ish languidness, and Cry-Baby’s knocked-up kid sister Pepper (Ricki Lake, the chubby fun-lover from “Hairspray”).
The jokey harmlessness of “Cry-Baby” (rated PG-13) may seem disconcertingly mainstream for John Waters fans with long memories. But the same man who made “Pink Flamingos” made this film; the gross-outs may be gone, but Waters is still primarily interesting in tweaking, not slashing, the status quo. Waters is too consciously aware of what bad taste is to be considered anarchic. He may make fun of middle-class decorum, but it nevertheless is the framework for his comedy--it’s what he takes off from.
What’s missing in Waters’ new film is not so much the subversiveness of his earlier movies as the weirded-out invention. Too much in “Cry-Baby” is virtually indistinguishable from what it’s supposed to be lampooning; the “chicken” car-race between the drapes and the squares, the reform-school musical number, the charm-school talent show, the rumbles, all lack an extra twist of mockery. It’s almost as if Waters, finally in a position to make his very own Hollywood teen movie, forgot to make it funny, or at least funny in ways that seem distinctively his . I was grateful whenever I recognized his special stamp, such as the orphanage sequence, where prospective parents visit caged displays of children in glass booths, like the dinosaur dioramas in a natural history museum.
Johnny Depp has a gangly enthusiasm, particularly in his rockabilly routines; Willem Dafoe, in an unbilled cameo, has a funny-nasty turn as a reform-school guard, and, yes, Traci Lords has a few tart moments, like when she rolls her disbelieving eyes at the sight of a Dutch foreign-exchange student camped out in her parents’ living room.
But there’s also something a bit unsettling--queasy--about the way Waters shoves some of his more grotesque, notorious and broken-down cast members at us. It’s quite a gallery, ranging from David Nelson, of “Ozzie and Harriet,” to Troy Donahue, Joey Heatherton, Mink Stole, Susan Tyrrell, Polly Bergen and Patty Hearst. It’s not always clear whether these people are in on the joke; they’re part of the fun but they’re also being made fun of. “Cry-Baby” is often sweet-spirited even when its crummy, but there’s also something fetid in its foolery.
A Universal Pictures release. Executive producers Jim Abrahams, Brian Grazer. Producer Rachel Talalay. Director John Waters. Screenplay John Waters. Music Patrick Williams. Cinematographer David Insley. Choreography Lori Eastside. Production design Vincent Peraino. Costume and makeup design Van Smith. Film editor Janice Hampton. With Johnny Depp, Amy Locane, Susan Tyrrell, Polly Bergen, Ricki Lake, Traci Lords, Iggy Pop.
Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes.
MPAA-rated: PG-13 (parents strongly cautioned; some material may be inappropriate for children under 13).