movie review by
Gary Johnson


(© 1999 New Line Cinema Inc. All rights reserved.)

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Drop Dead Gorgeous

Do you like your comedies drenched in cynicism? If so, you'll quite probably love Drop Dead Gorgeous, one of the most ferociously cynical comedies ever to emerge from Hollywood. Filmed in mock documentary fashion, much like Waiting for Guffman, it takes dead aim on the world of beauty pageants and it doesn't let up until everyone--contestants, judges, past contest winners, hosts, etc.--have all been revealed as either stupid or mean. The closest we get to a character that we can like is Amber Atkins (Kirsten Dunst), who applies make-up to corpses at the local funeral parlor while practicing her tap dancing routines: "Guys get outta Mount Rose all the time for hockey scholarships and prison. But the pageant's kinda my only chance," she says. She lives in a cigarette-smoke-filled trailer with her mother, Annette (Ellen Barkin): "Amber, you're like this Coors in my hand. You're a part of me," Annette says, a line that takes on special significance after an "accident" fuses the can to her hand.

Amber's chief competition is Becky Leeman (Denise Richards), a spoiled-rich girl and daughter of former winner Gladys Leeman (Kirstie Alley). Becky has a talent for sucking up. When Amber shows up at the local eating-disorders clinic to style the hair of last year's beauty contest winner (that's right, last year's winner is now suffering from bulimia!), Becky shows up soon afterwards, smiling her plastic smile and offering chocolates and flowers. "Who are you?" asks last-year's winner with an angelic smile--well, as angelic a smile as possible, anyway, when it looks like you might keel over dead at any minute.

Amber and Becky are joined by a cadre of other contestants: "If you're 17 and you're not a total fry, it's just what you do," says one of the girls. Mount Rose, Minnesota, is Heartland USA. It's downright homespun and pure; however, in Mount Rose, beauty and kindness have become a pathological obsession: "Yah, I think you boys'll find that things are different here in Mount Rose. For one thing, we're God fearin' folk, every last one of us. You won't find a back room in our video store," says Gladys Leeman. But soon after the beauty contest contestants are announced, Becky's main competition is killed in a freak tractor accident. Or was it an accident?

Not many movies have ventured into this territory. Michael Ritchie's Smile (1975) is the most notable example. Smile is a wicked satire that used beauty pageants as a symbol for hollow values in American middle-class life. At the time it was made, the idea of a satire about beauty pageants was new and unusual. Nearly, 25 years later, with beauty pageants widely regarded as politically incorrect, the same material seems much less daring. As a result, director Michael Patrick Jann (who wrote, directed, and starred in MTV's comedy series The State) and screenwriter Lona Williams (a beauty contest veteran herself) aren't satisfied playing the beauty contest in Drop Dead Gorgeous for gentle satirical jabs. Instead, they go for the jugular, twisting and distorting everything for maximum comic value. Rarely does Drop Dead Gorgeous feel very close to real life. It lunges far beyond the credible and into a world of absurdly exaggerated behavior. However, the filmmakers always give each scene a kernel of truth. Sometimes those kernels are mighty small, as when one of the contestants performs her talent competition dance--with a life-size doll of Jesus on the cross! At other times, the kernels of truth are a bit larger, as when the girls perform the contest's opening dance number with step ladders--and discover the paint is still wet on the ladders.

Director Jann isn't concerned with creating a world that you can believe in. His main intention is to leave you shaking your head in disbelief at the outrageous sights he puts on display--such as when a huge swan-shaped parade float explodes or when a bevy of contestants assault the headquarters of the Sarah Rose Miss Teen Princess America Pageant after the national finals have been canceled. Whether you can laugh at such antics, or merely look on in stunned silence, is a matter of personal taste, I suppose. If John Waters, the infamous director of Pink Flamingoes and Polyester, had made a movie twenty years ago about beauty pageants, it might have looked a lot like Drop Dead Gorgeous. I mean that as a compliment (in case there is any doubt), but even John Waters has allowed optimism to gradually suffuse his more recent films. However, Drop Dead Gorgeous is anything but optimistic. This is a wicked and venomous movie--that also happens to be absolutely hilarious. Along with Rushmore and Election, Drop Dead Gorgeous is one of this year's best comedies.

[rating: 3 of 4 stars]