John Waters has packed Cry-Baby with so many agreeable kitsch moments and high-trash casting turns (Patty Hearst, Iggy Pop, Traci Lords, Princess Di… nah, just kiddin’!!) that it takes a while to admit to yourself what a disappointment the film is. Waters is rehashing the same happily plastic, early rock & roll terrain he mined in Hairspray — only here the satire is muted and scattershot, and served up with an earnestness he hasn’t shown before. This isn’t the only Waters movie that has seemed a little tiresome; the psychotic fairy tale Desperate Living always struck me as a lot more fun to think about than it was to sit through. But this may be the first time the director’s scabrous, anarchic wit seems vaguely depressed.
Set in 1954, Cry-Baby is a loosey-goosey parody of Eisenhower-era rebel movies. It has bad kids in black leather, straight-A squares who despise them, a freshly scrubbed good girl (Amy Locane, who’s like a baby Ann-Margret) longing to be bad, and an Elvis/James Dean sensitive-biker hero (Johnny Depp), who’s treated by the movie with a dismaying lack of irony.
The film has its share of vintage Waters touches, and a few of them are quite funny: the opening sequence of kids getting vaccinated with gargantuan hypodermics; a montage of slobbery French kisses; dialogue like ”He likes his women bad, not cheap!” But let’s face it: When it comes to satire, the ’50s were strip-mined long ago. Waters’ wild card has always been his overt allegiance to the ”bad” characters. Only here it seems schematic and preordained. Cry-Baby is such a staunchly pro-delinquent movie that it ends up as moralistic as one of Tipper Gore’s anti-rock crusades.
For those of us who followed Waters back in his Pink Flamingos days, Hairspray was a pop epiphany: the rare case of an underground filmmaker toning down his edge yet seeming revolutionary in the process. The movie paid exuberant homage to the strangeness of American youth-culture fads. For the first time, Waters revealed the loving roots of his trash obsessions — he turned fun into a subversive concept.
Cry-Baby is even more of an unabashed pop-culture valentine, and that’s part of the problem with it. When Waters is self-consciously affectionate, his comedy lacks surprise; it doesn’t have the requisite venom. The movie would have been better with a riper hero. Johnny Depp (of 21 Jump Street) looks great, but he’s a very flat actor, with some of Charlie Sheen’s cool-eyed blandness. His character is called ”Cry-Baby” because of his habit of shedding a single, gooey tear; he’s a deep-down hurtin’ kinda guy. It’s a good gag, but except for this one touch, Cry-Baby is too straight a character.
What’s really missing from the movie is the John Waters energy — and I’m afraid much of that can be chalked up to the absence of his perennial star, the late Divine. No other performer could deliver a line with Divine’s operatic nastiness. He didn’t just chew the scenery: He ate it, gleefully. Here, working without his beloved superstar, Waters fills the screen with a dream cast of outlaw eccentrics. Only now, this sort of thing is starting to look like shtick. I’m thrilled a director as rebelliously gifted as John Waters has moved into the mainstream, but it may be time he got away from Baltimore and started redefining the cutting edge — not just for us, but for himself. C+