DIRECTED BY: John Waters
PLOT: A “drape” with the ability to cry a single tear on command falls for a “square” girl in 1950s Baltimore.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: If you stacked John Waters’ movies with the weirdest on top and most mainstream on the bottom, there’s a good chance Cry-Baby would be making up the foundation.
COMMENTS: John Waters’ first movie after the 1988 death of his muse Divine continued his retreat from the trashy outrageousness of the Pink Flamingos era into the nostalgic PG-13 rated camp represented by this and Hairspray. Cry-Baby is a nostalgic, light-hearted parody of 1950s juvenile delinquent movies, with a couple of musical production numbers thrown in almost as an afterthought. The plot is a simple star-crossed riff on West Side Story/Grease, with sexy Amy Locane as the good girl longing to be bad and Depp as the type of sensitive hood that made teen girls in poodle skirts feel things they had never felt before.
As usual in a Waters movie, the casting is half the fun. At the time, Depp was a small screen teen idol whose career arc showed little promise. Although cast because of his heartthrob status—his campy line deliveries as Cry-Baby (which sometimes sound like Elvis acting at his best) don’t allow him to really stretch his talents—Depp’s presence in a John Waters movie did telegraph his intent to gamble on oddball roles, and made casting directors look at him in a different light. As far as supporting players and cameos go, look for real-life bad girl Traci Lords as a pouty teen; Susan Tyrrell and Iggy Pop as Cry-Baby’s reprobate roadhouse grandparents; Troy Donahue, Mink Stole, Joe Dallesandro, Joey Heatherton, and former brainwashed heiress Patty Hearst as the older generation of drapes; and Willem Dafoe as a “hateful guard.” Ricki Lake, as a 50s version of an unfit teen mom, is piggish (“I’m so happy all knocked-up!”), rather than sympathetic as intended, but little-known Kim McGuire (or at least her makeup) makes quite an impression as the aptly-named Hatchet Face. There are so many eccentric minor players jostling for time onscreen that there’s no time for real characterization, which keeps Cry-Baby faithful to the movies it’s parodying, at least.
As a lightly magical realist comedy, Cry-Baby is fairly successful, although of course many Waters fans will miss the nasty grit of the trashpile 1970s movies. In 1990 the Eisenhower-era satirical targets are stale, but there are some amusing moments in the script, topped by an orphanage that’s run like an animal shelter, with children behind glass waiting to be adopted. “She’s Caucasian,” drawls the patrician orphanage matron in regards to a darling eight-year-old girl playing house in her cell, “but that’s about all I can recommend.” In terms of oddnesses, look for a baby cradle festooned with deaths heads, an easily spooked cow, and a “helpful” sewer rat.
Like all of Waters’ post-Hairspray work, Cry-Baby lost money at the box office. Waters regained his “R” rating with his next film, 1994’s Serial Mom, and abandoned his brief experiment in family-friendly entertainment. Depp, of course, went on to greater weirdness, starring next in Tim Burton‘s Edward Scissorhands before moving on to Certified Weird performances in Dead Man (1995) and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998).
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“John Waters at his most accessible — which is still really odd.”–Rob Thomas, Capital Times