A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 80 – Cry Baby

Cry Baby – May 19th, 2010

I’m honestly not sure how to review this movie. I’m tempted to just say that it’s John Waters doing a fifties-era jailhouse Romeo and Juliet and leave it at that, but that’s not quite accurate or enough to explain it. The trouble is, I think it’s a parody and not a parody at the same time. I mean, it’s so self-aware it’s practically sentient, but it never quite breaks the fourth wall, but then it’s also making a serious stab at telling its story. Even if that story is a well-worn trope that practically tells itself. It’s this very specific type of over-the-top exaggeration that takes itself seriously and doesn’t at the same time.

I don’t remember the first time I saw this movie, but I know I’ve seen it a number of times. I’d seen it before college. Maybe on television? I’m not sure. I watched a lot of late night television when I was in high school. I’m nocturnal by nature and much happier when I can stay up at night and sleep during the day, so late night television was my friend when I could do that. And I vaguely recall seeing this and noticing Johnny Depp and the music and thinking it looked kind of cool and then getting totally sucked into it when it wasn’t quite what I’d expected at first. I’d sort of thought it was a regular old period musical romance type thing, done with rock and or roll. And it is. But it was never intended to be played with a completely straight face. Every line, every moment, every performance is done with a wink.

So you’ve got Allison, a good girl from a good family whose grandmother runs a charm school. And Allison sings sweet little songs to her friends, all the Squares. And then you’ve got Cry Baby, a bad boy from a bad family whose grandmother sells stolen hubcaps. And Cry Baby sings rock songs to all his friends, the Drapes. And of course they fall in love and then there’s a big fight between the Drapes and the Squares and Cry Baby ends up in jail and they can’t be together and there’s a lot of singing and dancing and impassioned looks and finally a game of chicken. There’s singing there too. I think saying “There’s a lot of singing” isn’t getting across just how much singing is in this movie. And even when there’s no singing, there’s music. It’s all very retro 1950s (which wasn’t a conscious part of us picking this movie tonight, even if last night’s was a similar time period – they’re not at all similar really, aside from some duck and cover jokes).

Everything in the movie is taken well beyond its parody until it’s a parody of parody. Cry Baby’s gang isn’t just bad, they’re the worst. His sister, Pepper, is a single teen mother with two kids already and a third on the way. Wanda, played to the hilt by Traci Lords, is a sexpot who flaunts her body. Hatchet-Face is, well, the tough chick, introduced wielding a switchblade. Milton is, as described by Cry Baby’s grandmother, “young, stupid and mean”, and also dating Hatchet-Face. Cry Baby’s grandmother wears several pounds of makeup and a series of bizarre outfits and is married to a man who’s introduced giving himself a bath in a metal wash basin in the front yard. He, by the way, is played by Iggy Pop, which makes me want to watch Trainspotting soon. Sure, they all sound like caricatures, and they are. The movie flat out tells you they are. Wanda actually attacks people with her breasts during the big fight and Pepper declares that she loves being bad so much she wishes she was carrying triplets (how carrying triplets would make her bad and not just fertile is beside the point – the intent of the line is pretty clear) and then there’s Cry Baby, whose ‘bad breeding’ comes from his father being a serial bomber who was sentenced to the electric chair, which Cry Baby has tattooed on his chest. He does something rotten every day in his father’s memory. The movie repeatedly breaks the Robot Devil’s rule of not announcing how your characters feel, but beyond that it announces how they are.

The whole movie plays in a way that goes “HEY! LOOK AT WHAT I DID JUST THERE!” while also knowing just how loudly it’s yelling that. It tricks itself into dealing with race issues of the time and juvenile delinquency and being free to be yourself by making a joke of it all, but shouting it as boldly as possible. Or singing it, as the case may be. I did mention all the singing, right?

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May 19, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Cry Baby

May 19, 2010

Cry Baby

Long ago (when I was in high school) I once had a bunch of friends spend the night at my parents’ house, including my then girlfriend and some of her friends. It should reveal a lot about my circle of friends that my friends and I rented Monty Python and the Holy Grail to watch. She and her friends watched Grease. That was the first time I watched Grease, and it deeply disappointed me. Because the end of the movie had the good girl betraying everything she was to get the guy. I’ve always been very much about allowing people to be themselves, and the notion that somebody had to change to be with the person she loved just didn’t sit well with me. Today we’re not reviewing Monty Python, or Grease. We’re reviewing the un-Grease.

Now I don’t think that Cry Baby is a conscious effort to spoof Grease. It pays homage to a lot of the same tropes because they both take place in an idealized fifties world of straight kids and greaser gangs. Sure they’re both fifties musicals and both have basically the same ending, with the confrontational car ride and the good girl gone bad, but they reach this destination with a very different intention.

The first actual line in Cry Baby is “I’m so tired of being good.” Allison is a Square who realizes during the opening credits that she wants to be a Drape. She wants to run with the crazy group of juvenile delinquents that is Cry Baby’s gang. And the whole movie is her journey to get there. John Waters brings us along on this journey into a strange and magical world of freaks and misfits, and you can’t help having a good time along the way.

Cry Baby’s gang include his crazy arms-dealing hillbilly grandmother, his whip thin hick uncle (Iggy Pop, clearly having a great time) who has for the past ten years been sleeping with his grandma (if I’m understanding this right,) his pregnant-in-highschool little sister, the crazy-faced Hatchet Face (she’s got character!), her good-for-nothing boyfriend Milton and Tracy Lords. It’s a very John Waters cast of characters, like a cleaned up for the nineties representation of the miscreants from Female Trouble and Pink Flamingos. And there’s such joy in the way they revel in their strangeness.

Maybe I’m wrong about it not being a conscious spoof of Grease. It is an intentional spoof. It’s a spoof of nostalgia in general. A deliberate lampooning of any movie that romanticises that time period. John Waters brings us this great group of misfits to present a nostalgia for a seedy fifties that never was. A time of cheerful pornographers, cigarette pushers, and kids gone gloriously bad. It’s like all the Ed Wood era morality tales of the dangers of hooliganism turned on its head to present a world where the only right-thinking thing to do is to rebel against the square, dry,homogenized and samey world of the fifties.

And at the same time it’s a rollicking musical with a bunch of great dance numbers while at the same time poking fun at itself.

Truth be told, this movie defies description. Which makes it hard to review. It’s not got the edgy outsider feel of Waters’ earlier work, but it still had a great love of the bizarre.

I’d like to close my review with another short anecdote from my past: my mother discovered John Waters through the movie Polyester (filmed in smell-around!) and Hairspray. She loved the work of long-time-waters mainstay Divine, and had heard an interview with Divine on NPR that mentioned Pink Flamingos. So she rented Pink Flamingos (this would probably in in about 1991 or so) to watch it with my then-eight-year-old little sister. Both of them were traumatized by the experience. I think that John Waters would like that. That his more mainstream films from the eighties warped and twisted the mind of a little girl.

Keep making the world a stranger place, John. You old weirdo.

May 19, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment