Finding that using past decades as back drops for his stories had worked well before in films such as Hairspray and Polyester, John Waters decided to travel back in time yet again for his opus to the 1950s, Cry Baby. Similar in style to Hairspray, Cry Baby immerses itself in 1950s lore and showing the war between the 'Squares' and the 'Drapes' in Baltimore through classic tunes of the time. Its not incredibly inventive, but it does effectively skewer the 'teen pictures' and songs from the 50s. One has to wonder if the working title for the film was "The Leader of the Pack" because the story holds and strong resemblance to that song.
The story begins in a Baltimore high school in the 50s while the students are getting their polio shots. It seems like a typical day with the 'squares', or good kids, and the 'drapes', who are the hoods and trouble makers. The two groups tease and make fun of each other just like usual...but something changes when good-girl Allison (Amy Locane) lays eyes of Cry-Baby (Johnny Depp), the leader of the drapes who is so-named because of the single tear that he sheds when ever he is emotional. It is love at first sight and Allison and Cry-Baby are soon trying to find time to be alone together, despite the fact that their respective groups are trying to forbid the union. Soon war breaks out between the two groups and only love can conquer the oppressive powers at work before everything ends tragically in a fury of drag racing and rock and roll.
Cry Baby is one of Waters' most simple tales and I think it suffers from that. Its not that the film is bad, its just not as fun and strange as his other work. It almost seems like Universal, the studio that made the film, tried to recreate Hairspray but used the 50s and Depp as a heartthrob in order to sell tickets. What is missing, however, is the strong message that resides in Waters' other mainstream pictures. Sure, the idea and message that love is stronger than social expectations is nice, but its not as fun as his deflation of discrimination in Hairspray or his look behind the scenes at suburbia in Polyester and Serial Mom. As I said, it almost seems like Waters is phoning in this one. What sets this one apart is the fact that it is indeed a musical. The actors don't do their own singing, but it is a musical nonetheless, using 50s rock and roll hits and certain numbers that were written for the film. It is this contribution to the plot structure that really makes the film work, since the other aspects are so overly familiar. Seeing Johnny Depp dance and lipsync with a bunch of prisoners in a jail laundry to "Doin' Time for Bein' Young" is intensely satisfying, as is watching Amy Locane lipsync to "Please Mister Jailer" in order to plea for Cry-Baby's freedom from jail. It should also be noted that the supporting characters in this, which are made up of typical Waters weirdos, are more interesting than the attractive leads. Perhaps this is because Waters feels more at home writing for freaks than he does for 'pretty people'. Particularly interesting is Hatchet-Face (Kim McGuire), a curvy platinum blonde with a face that could shatter a mirror. Also on the sidelines is Waters regular Rikki Lake as Cry-Baby's sister Pepper and Traci Lords as the lusty Wanda. This film is probably even more mainstream than Hairspray, so its easy for me to recommend it as a film for the casual viewer. For someone who's a John Waters fan? Well, sure why not? But remember, its not nearly as strange or witty as we're accustomed to him being. This will conclude my examination of John Waters....mainly because I need to find more of his films to watch so I can review them. Hopefully in the future, I'll be able to look at more of the one's I haven't seen like Pecker and Cecil B. Demented.