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By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
April 07, 1990


John Waters
Johnny Depp;
Amy Locane;
Polly Bergen;
Susan Tyrrell;
Iggy Pop;
Ricki Lake;
Traci Lords;
Troy Donahue;
Joey Heatherton;
David Nelson;
Patty Hearst;
Joe Dallesandro;
Willem Dafoe
Children under 13 should be accompanied by a parent

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"Cry-Baby" is basically "Grease" without Divine inspiration, an agitated spoof of the leather-jacket genre from Baltimore's tacky John Waters. Set right next door in 1954, it is a mock-heroic medley of doo-wop, rockabilly, white bucks and bullet bras aimed not at camp followers, but at a mainstreamier audience of adolescents and nostalgic boomers.

This time around the kid stuff is Johnny Depp. Already knighted "a face of the '90s," the rock star cum teen idol has got bobby-sox appeal. In the title role of "Cry-Baby" Walker -- a "drape," as Baltimore toughs were known -- he falls in love with Allison Vernon-Williams, a rich "square." Amy Locane, who costars as the fallen teen angel Allison, also glows like sixteen candles despite the stale role.

Allison is the grandchild of the headmistress of the local charm farm, a good girl who yearns to be bad in Cry-Baby's arms. Motivated by hormones and new rock rhythms, she turns her back on her Pat Boone-ish boyfriend, Baldwin (Stephen Mailer), to become a "drapette" and Cry-Baby's moll. Baldwin, the head "square," leads his clique against the juvenile delinquents, who are unjustly blamed for the ensuing ruckus, and their leader is sent to reform school.

Waters, who once told inmates of Patuxent Institution, "These films I make are my crimes," has spent time behind bars lecturing to prisoners. Maybe that's why the best of "Cry-Baby" is in the lockup where Willem Dafoe attempts to hammer the values of the Eisenhower Age into his delinquent charges. And there's jailhouse rock, enthusiastically performed by the zebra-suited chorus with the sulky Depp and the sultry Locane passionately lip-syncing their tunes.

Not so much a lampoon as a celebration of cliches, "Cry-Baby" has less to say about adolescence and learning to be one's own person than 1988's "Hairspray." And some of his notions -- racial harmony among the blacks and rednecks of the period, for instance -- seem especially thin coming from the maker of "Pink Flamingos." While this is a common conceit among the makers of nerd vengeance comedies, surely Waters is capable of something a tad more original.

Basically the filmmaker reminds us of his affection for social misfits, but without much conviction. He's simply too hip to commit himself to his beliefs, and a relentless frivolity prevails. Still "Cry-Baby" is not without its spit-curled charms, its amusing lines and its funky famous-name cameos. Patty Hearst, Troy Donahue and Polly Bergen are among the has-beens featured. Like them, "Cry-Baby" wants to be so out, it's in. But even that's out these days.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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