By Richard Winters
My Rating: 4 out of 10
4-Word Review: The Greasers are cool.
Director John Waters films, which are sometimes referred to as ‘an exercise in bad taste’, are indeed an acquired taste. Some label his films from the late 60’s and early 70’s like; Mondo-Trasho, Pink Flamingoes, and Female Trouble to be tasteless, exploitative, and trashy. Yet those films also have a very fervent following. I for one found them to be perversely brilliant. However, when Waters decided to ‘sell-out’ and go more mainstream Hollywood, his stuff became too toned-down. The humor lost all of its edge. The original Hairspray that came out in 1988 was a particular disappointment. It seemed like nothing more than a stretched out sitcom with musical numbers. This film, which came out two years later, does only slightly better.
The setting is a 1950’s Baltimore High School that has an intense rivalry between the leather jacket wearing, motorcycle riding ‘greasers’ and the more refined All-American clique. The lightweight story follows a young, clean-cut girl (Amy Locane) who secretly longs to go out with the head of the greasers (played by Johnny Depp), but can’t due to her social standing.
If the film does anything right it is the fact that, in typical John Waters style, everything gets played up to the extreme. The ‘model’ students are really snobby and annoying and the animosity between the cliques is strong. However, I couldn’t help but feel that there was a certain grain of truth to all this especially in that era where ones ‘reputation’, whether it be good or bad, was taken more seriously than it may be today. I thought the casting of Locane in the lead was perfect. She has an appealing, girl-next-door face and her hidden feelings of wanting to venture out of her repressive social role are certainly relatable. I also loved Depp in the male lead role. He is a gifted actor, but sometimes he seems to take himself too seriously, so it was fun seeing him ham it up. Female viewers may also like the fact that there is an extended scene where he is shown wearing nothing but his underwear.
The casting of the supporting actors is equally inspired if not incredibly quirky. Polly Bergen gets what might by her finest role in her long, but modest career. Here she plays Locane’s very rigid, upstanding Mother that ends up loosening up a bit in amusing fashion. Joe Dallesandro and Joey Hetherton are a hoot as an extremist religious couple. David Nelson and Patty Hearst (yes, the same one that was kidnaped in the 70’s) are equally funny as the surbanites. Waters veteran Mink Stole has a bit playing the most entertaining iron lung victim since Jose Ferrer played one in The Big Bus. Kudos must also go out to Kim Holden who sports one of the most hilariously ugly faces since Cloris Leachman’s Nurse Diesel character from High Anxiety. The only mistake here is that they didn’t make the Holden character a villain, which they should’ve in order to really play it up.
Some of the comedy does have its moments. I liked the part where parents go to an adoption agency and ‘shop’ for children who are set up like mannequins in a display window. The climactic car chase sequence in which the rival gang leaders play the infamous game of ‘chicken’ while riding on the roofs of their cars only to end up crashing into an actual chicken coop, is good. The rest of the film though is too silly and cartoonish without the outrageousness of Water’s earlier films.
The story is also too pedestrian without offering any new insight or perspective. The characterizations are over-the-top broad and the whole thing ends up being vapid and forgettable despite a few chuckles here and there. There are also some musical numbers in this, but the songs all sound alike. The dance routines are dull and unimaginative, looking like they were done without a choreographer present.
Waters earlier work is still far better as it was independent film-making at its purest. Those films also starred Divine who is sorely missed here (she died a few years before). Of course any film that has Susan Tyrrell in it, arguably the most eccentric actress to ever grace the screen, gets a few more points, but not enough to save it.
My Rating: 4 out of 10
Released: April 6, 1990
Runtime: 1Hour 25Minutes
Director: John Waters
Available: VHS, DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Instant Video