Film Review: Cry-Baby (1990)

in #aaalast year (edited)


Recent courtroom drama have shown that Johnny Depp can count on fan base as loyal and devoted as no other Hollywood actor of our times. The path to such lofty status wasn’t easy. The starring film, 1990 period musical comedy Cry-Baby, written and directed by John Waters, was actually a box office flop. Later it received a cult status, mainly on the account of Depp’s popularity.

The plot is set in Waters’ native Baltimore in 1954. The title protagonist, played by Depp, is Wade “Cry-Baby” Walker, teenage leader of local gang of “drapes” (greasers) whose good looks, singing talent and ability to shed a single tear makes him irresistible to girls. One of them is Allison Vernon-Williams (played by Amy Locane), girl from “proper” middle-class family who has “proper” boyfriend in the form of “square” Baldwin (played by Stephen Mailer). Tired of the constraining conventions of her social group, she falls in love with Cry-Baby and, despite protestations of her over-protective grandmother (played by Polly Bergen), she accompanies Cry-Baby to Turkey Point, rural hangout where “drapes”, rebellious teenagers and other social misfits, enjoy early rock’n’roll music. Cry-Baby also falls in love with Allison, but their romance is cut short by jealous Baldwin and other “squares” sabotaging Cry-Baby’s motorcycle which would lead to fight after which Cry-Baby ends in jail.

Cry-Baby can be seen as spiritual sequel to Hairspray, Waters’ semi-autobiographical musical which was also his departure from transgressive world of trash cinema into Hollywood mainstream. Waters enjoyed huge budget, but failed to repeat success of its earlier work. This might be due to film being set in 1950s instead of 1960s and Waters relying less on his own memories and more on the way Hollywood and American popular culture depicted the era. The special emphasis was given to teenagers who were depicted as menace and threat to mainstream society, with Waters, known for his fondness for social outcasts and rebels, taking the side of “drapes” and portraying him with loving care, helped a lot by cast that includes Ricki Lake, former porn star Traci Lords in her first major mainstream role, short-haired Iggy Popp and formidable Susan Tyrell as hillbilly couple that hosts “drapes” in their hangout. The title role was played by Depp, at the time known exclusively as teen idol thanks to his role in 21 Jump Street. Afraid of being typecast, Depp has embraced the role of archetypal 1950s teen rebel based on early Elvis Presley, and played it with complete lack of constraint. He had decent chemistry with Amy Locane who, with her “girl next door” looks, played archetypal good girl that falls in love with a bad boy. It all works sufficiently well to provide passable entertainment, although more demanding viewers would notice many lost opportunities. Waters, like most Boomers, has adopted view of 1950s as more conservative and repressive era and depicts the conflict between social conservatives and rebels in simplistic terms, without much nuance. Plot is, therefore, rather thin and it resolves in quick and not particularly convincing manner. Music and dance numbers, which are supposed to be essence of this film, are much weaker than in Hairspray; its artificiality, together with the cast hamming it up, further makes this film worse in comparison. Cry-Baby failed to make the desired financial impact, but it helped Depp discover his preference for roles of quirky, unusual characters in films slightly off mainstream – something which would serve him well for the rest of his career.

RATING: 5/10 (++)

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