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CRY-BABY

*** (A must-see)

Directed and written by John Waters

With Johnny Depp, Amy Locane, Ricki Lake, Traci Lords, Kim McGuire, and Polly Bergen.

"I'm tired of being good," says sweet little Allison Vernon-Williams near the beginning of Cry-Baby, the new musical comedy by John Waters. This WASP beauty with the double-barreled handle, whose closest flirtation with sin has probably been mixing plaids with stripes, is a prom-queen type at her Baltimore high school in 1954 until she utters those magic words while gazing with barely bridled lust at cute leather punk Cry-Baby Walker. For Allison, the results of the utterance are as dramatic as they were for Dorothy when she whispered, "There's no place like home," except that Allison is swept off in another direction, away from home's satin-pillow security and toward the thrilling world of JDs, sex, and rock 'n' roll.

In Cry-Baby, Waters filters 50s memories through the cultural apparatus that was meant to purify the period's profane goings-on for mass consumption, the old-style teen exploitation film. Those movies--like the immortal High School Confidential!--were the bastard children of De Millean biblical epics, remixing the old moralists' recipe of hoochie-koo and don't-you-dare into the familiar brew of downbeat titillation. Waters changes the formula, however, to produce an upside-down celebration of adolescent license. Rather than ending up governed by adult sensibility, these kids embrace joyful nonsense.

Not that the action moves cohesively. As always, Waters's choices seem determined not so much by dramatic logic or visual plan as by the simple desire to accumulate half-remembered images re-formed in the context of a contemporary sensibility. In the past, when Waters was working on the fringes of alternative cinema, this system produced the campy psychodramas of the Pink Flamingos phase, which won him a huge cult following but produced little in the way of a coherent body of work. Cliquey travesties of middle-class taste, usually dominated by Divine's grandly comic presence, those films seem more like a showman's efforts to grab attention than the output of a mature artist.

Cry-Baby, however, marks the second time--after Hairspray--that Waters's keen appreciation of postwar American music and musicals has resulted in a top-notch entertainment whose sly wit is no barrier to mass appreciation. Surprise, surprise--all Baltimore's scatological bad boy needed to become a front-rank talent was a big budget and access to technology. Throw in his unfailing eye for edgy performers, and you have an outsider who can out-Hollywood Hollywood.

Like a good Hollywood filmmaker of bygone days, Waters delivers the goods on the most basic level--even without the subversive elements, Cry-Baby would be a pleasant musical romp. Johnny Depp, the teen idol who plays the title character--a romantic hoodlum who sheds one tear every day over the sad fate of his parents (no, I won't tell you)--turns out to be charismatic in a passive, inexpressive, limited way. Called on to knock knees and strum a guitar in the time-tested Elvis mold, he responds with surprising energy and skill. Amy Locane, who plays Allison, is a similarly good-natured performer, whose physical ripeness, combined with her blondly bland innocence, sets up a sexual tension that fuels the movie's slim plot.

The leading players don't make Cry-Baby a bash, however, so much as its gallery of eccentric supporting actors. And no one is funnier or more of a presence than former porn star Traci Lords, who here displays a fierce comic talent that should put most of her mainstream colleagues to shame. Wearing a scowl that could stop a tank in its tracks, Lords is only the toughest and most fearsome of the trio of hard-boiled ladies who make up the female, and more animated, half of Cry-Baby's gang. With her sisters in delinquency--played by Hairspray star Ricki Lake and newcomer Kim McGuire, whose character's name, Hatchet-Face, only begins to do justice to her shocking visage--Lords preaches her gospel: "Our tits are weapons."

Obviously a substantial camp element pervades Waters's film, as always, although it is of his own peculiar brand. Camp, with its mordant self- consciousness, is employed to hold a drama at arm's length, to bring a sardonic distance to action and thus reveal some secret text. Given the gradual confusion of sex roles here, the female activity and male passivity--Cry-Baby's brethren, like him, are silent and languorous pretty boys--it is not hard to figure out what subtext Waters is mining. When Cry-Baby ends up in jail (where some of the best musical numbers take place) and attempts an escape, he loses his pants in the process and spends many otherwise pointless moments parading around in his underwear.

However, if Waters wants to giggle at his own homoerotic high jinks, he refrains from engaging in the straw-man bashing that often accompanies such figurative panty raids. These characters have not been assembled so that Waters can evoke cheap laughs, although at times it might appear so. For example, Allison's greatest foe in her attempt to shed cotton for leather is her old boyfriend Baldwin, a walking crew cut in a letter sweater. Waters gets much mileage out of Baldwin and his friends, a quartet of squares who love to entertain the oldsters with a country-club rendition of "Sh-Boom." But though Baldwin and company are silly, they are never absolutely ridiculous, and when they and their hopelessly out-of-it friends do a bunny hop all the way down the neighborhood's streets to win Allison back for Baldwin, something grand shows in the gesture. Silly, of course; ridiculous, naturally; and ludicrous, ultimately. But in a bighearted way.

The same goes for the rest of the cast. The various parents, who show up in what amount to little more than walk-ons, include David Nelson and Patricia Hearst as Traci Lords's parents, involved in a hilarious mix-up over their daughter's misinterpretation of student exchanges ("You turned me in for a Swede?") that obviously plays off the images of these two, but never cruelly.

In fact, the movie is so good- humored that it stands in marked contrast to almost every other mainstream American film out now, each of which, to some extent or another, is committed to a conception of mankind as a bunch of rotters. For all the weirdness Waters likes to uncork in his films, he never unleashes fundamentally bad feelings, and that is why Cry-Baby is so enjoyable. It just feels good about itself.

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