Cinema: Teen Tough

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CRY-BABY Directed and Written by John Waters

He's a rebel; one lewd strand of hair snakes down to his cheek. He's an orphan; his parents, the notorious Alphabet Bomber (Airport, Barber shop, Car wash, Drug store . . .) and spouse, were electrocuted together long before he turned teen. He's Wade Walker, and when the world that has branded him a juvenile delinquent weighs too heavily on his high school hellcat soul, his eye moistens with a single salty tear. So the kids call him Cry-Baby. Says Wade defiantly: "That's Mr. Baby to you."

John Waters' teen musical is set in 1954, just before Ike gave way to Elvis. Waters, a genially deranged raconteur, has been inching toward Hollywood since making his rep decades back with scrofulous comedies (Multiple Maniacs, Pink Flamingos) from the Baltimore underground. His big-studio debut is a gaudy, affectionate memoir of his youth, when Drapes (punks) and Squares rumbled for the heart of a girl named Allison (perky Amy Locane). Waters' hole card is Johnny Depp, the winsome tough from TV's 21 Jump Street, who radiates big- screen grace and swagger as Cry-Baby -- no easy trick, since he is guying his own image.

So are most of the other actors, a motley crew culled from the director's pet sources -- kitsch movies of the '50s, tabloid headlines of the '70s and '80s -- who could have met nowhere in the world but on a John Waters set. Surfside heartthrob Troy Donahue. Media minx Joey Heatherton. Ever fashionable Polly Bergen. Andy Warhol icon Joe Dallesandro. Punk pioneer Iggy Pop. Legendary bad actress Susan Tyrrell. Norman Mailer's son Stephen. As a smarmily sadistic guard, Willem Dafoe. The parents of slutty Wanda (Traci Lords) are assayed by Ozzie and Harriet's own David Nelson and, in her movie debut, Patricia Hearst. The mind wanders: Is this the first time in Hollywood history that a famous abducted heiress has played mother to a famous underage porn princess?

Then Baldwin and the Whiffles -- an Ur-nerd quartet in plaid cummerbunds and smug smiles -- launch into a rendition of Sh-Boom at the charm-school talent show, and Cry-Baby takes off to parody paradise. It becomes a real musical (new songs, production numbers) and a careering melodrama: Grease with grit. Cliches collide, and so do jalopies; lightning strikes; the jailhouse rocks. Lovers lose themselves in a French-kissing dance that would have been banned on Bandstand.

The movie isn't handsome or measured or seamless -- the very notion of a well-made film would offend the director's antiaesthetic -- but once it gets revved up, Cry-Baby is keen fun from the onetime Belial of Baltimore. From now on, Hollywood, that's Mr. Waters to you. R.C.