Satirizing beauty contests is hardly new--Michael Ritchie's "Smile" did it brilliantly back in 1975--but since they're still around they remain ripe targets, as demonstrated with dark hilarity in "Drop Dead Gorgeous." Occasionally heavy-handed and overdone--and scarcely free from a self-congratulatory tone--this latest spoof is nonetheless lots of fun, clever and fearless, and loaded with wicked lines and touches.
Writer/executive producer Lona Williams, herself a former Minnesota beauty contestant, and first-time director Michael Patrick Jann unfold their film from the point of view of a crew of documentary filmmakers who have come to the fictional Minnesota town of Mount Rose, about to hold its annual American Teen Princess contest.
The winner will receive a $500 scholarship; more important, she will go on to participate in the state competition in Minneapolis and may even make it to the national pageant. The whole shebang has been sponsored for the last 50 years by the Sarah Rose Teen Cosmetics company of Atlanta--a fictional outfit, one must hastily add.
It's David and Goliath time. The local competition is run with an iron hand by a former winner, Gladys Leeman (Kirstie Alley), and this is the year her own daughter Becky (Denise Richards) is competing. Gladys is not about to have anybody but Becky win. Since her husband (Sam McMurray), a crass furniture store owner, is pretty clearly the town's leading merchant--he even puts up that $500 scholarship--and that Gladys is in the position to hand-pick a jury of village weirdos (including her husband's mousy secretary), Becky is pretty much a shoo-in.
Still, there is that pretty and sweet-natured Amber Atkins (Kirsten Dunst), a tap-dancing whiz who washes dishes in the school cafeteria and makes up corpses at the local mortuary to make ends meet. Amber, peppy and naive, is also intelligent and ambitious; she takes Diane Sawyer as her role model. She lives in a trailer park with her salty single mom, Annette (Ellen Barkin), a hairdresser who is determined that her daughter escape Mount Rose for a better life. Against overwhelming odds, Amber and a host of other girls enter the contest.
As the day of reckoning draws near, a series of dire events commences. A hearty outdoors girl, the unlikeliest contestant, winds up dead--but then she did beat out Becky in the Lutheran Sisterhood Gun Club shooting competition. Amber opens her school locker to find a snapshot of the dead girl inscribed on the back with "You're next." And that's just the beginning.
Williams neither identifies the culprit right off nor makes it a matter of suspense and instead treats such deadly violence with a matter-of-factness that is all too timely. And the knockabout pacing Jann maintains is exactly right for a picture in which plot is way secondary to characterization and especially sharp observations.
"Drop Dead Gorgeous" is chock-full of zingers: In one especially stupefying turn, the contestants come out in hats of their own creations, intended to express a Proud-to-Be-American theme. Becky's depicts Mt. Rushmore, another girl perches a Statue of Liberty on her head, but best of all, a white girl, adopted by Japanese immigrant parents, sports a mushroom cloud representing atomic power--not exactly the most tasteful choice, considering her parents' native land.
There are all sorts of throwaway lines, such as Gladys' declaration that her husband's "furniture is as phony as my orgasms." And then there's the local reigning Teen Queen (Alexandra Holden) now hospitalized for anorexia--which is what you get when you jog 18 miles a day on 400 calories.
No small-town gaucherie is left unskewered, everyone talks like they're straight out of "Fargo," but the filmmakers retain plenty of affection for the hard-scrabble Atkinses and their hearty neighbor Loretta, a down-to-earth, fortysomething gal with a sense of humor who is made so real and wise by Allison Janney that she practically steals the film. Dunst and Barkin couldn't be better, Richards is as rightly nasty as she is pretty.
It's always a pleasure to watch the ever-venturesome Alley have fun with the monstrous Gladys. Adam West has a nifty Bert Parks-like turn as the national pageant emcee.
* MPAA rating: PG-13, for irreverent and crude humor, sex-related material and language. Times guidelines: The humor and language tend toward the raunchy.
'Drop Dead Gorgeous'
Kirstie Alley: Gladys Leeman
Ellen Barkin: Annette Atkins
Kirsten Dunst: Amber Atkins
Denise Richards: Becky Leeman
A New Line Cinema presentation in association with Capella/KC Medien. Director Michael Patrick Jann. Producers Gavin Polone and Judy Hofflund. Executive producers Claire Rudnick Polstein, Donna Langley, Lona Williams. Screenplay by Williams. Cinematographer Michael Spiller. Editor David Codron, Janice Hampton. Music Mark Mothersbaugh. Costumes Mimi Melgaard. Production designer Ruth Ammon. Art director Maria Baker. Set decorator Helen Britten. Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes.
In general release.