Drop Dead Gorgeous
Screenplay : Lona Williams
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 1999
Stars : Kirsten Dunst (Amber Atkins), Kirstie Alley (Gladys Leeman), Ellen Barkin (Annette Atkins), Denise Richards (Becky Leeman), Allison Janney (Loretta), Sam McMurray (Lester Leeman), Amy Adams (Leslie Miller), Tara Redepenning (Molly Howard), Shannon Nelson (Tess Weinhaus)
It's always a sad sight when a satire goes after a painfully obvious and easy target, and still manages to miss the mark. Such is the case with "Drop Dead Gorgeous," a vicious black comedy about a teen beauty pageant, one of the silliest and most intellectually indefensible rituals of modern American culture.
Yet, writer Lona Williams (herself a beauty pageant veteran) and director Michael Patrick Jann (from the MTV series "The State") act like they're onto something big here. They strip away the candy coating and show that a teen beauty pageant is just a ridiculous exercise in ogling young females, and how it's really more about the power-hungry mothers trying to recapture their own youth through their children's victories. What a discovery.
But, Williams and Jann aren't satisfied by just mocking beauty pageants and all they stand for. Perhaps sensing that the material is thin and obvious, they coat it with a heavy layer of "Fargo"-ish Minnesota humor and shoot the whole movie in pseudo-documentary style to give it some weight. (It's telling of the flimsiness of this approach and how generally undisciplined the movie is that Jann can never stay with the documentary approach--whenever it's convenient, he makes it look like a documentary; when that gets old, he goes back to traditional filmmaking.)
There are also a number of unfunny, potentially offensive jokes about Asians, Jews, Mexicans, and the mentally handicapped, which, of course, wouldn't stand out as being offensive if the movie as a whole were really funny (movies like "Blazing Saddles" and "There's Something About Mary" get away with murder because they keep you laughing so hard, you don't have time to be offended). Unfortunately, the humor in "Drop Dead Gorgeous" is either simplistic or utterly bizarre.
On the simplistic front, we have a long-running joke about the previous year's winner of the Mount Rose, Minnesota, regional Miss Teen Princess America Beauty Pageant, who is a waifish, pale bulimic who spends the entire movie either wilting in a hospital room or being wheeled around in a wheelchair, wearing a giant wig because her hair is falling out. In some ways, this sounds funny, but the resulting visual of a sickly girl with an eating disorder being wheeled around a stage is more nauseating than laugh-inducing.
On the bizarre front ... well, there are simply too many instances to list. However, noting that the movie features pageant contestants vomiting over balconies after getting salmonella poisoning, a joke about a character going crazy and shooting at people from the roof of a building, or the joke about a character who is almost killed in an explosion and ends up with a full can of beer melted into the palm of her hand (where it stays for most of the movie, until her arm is amputated, that is), might give you a hint. Once again, it's not that this kind of material is unworkable or even inappropriate. It just belongs in a better movie with more to say.
In fact, "Drop Dead Gorgeous" would be literally unwatchable were it not for the charm and appeal of Kirsten Dunst, who plays Amber Atkins, a poor contestant who lives in a trailer park with her chain-smoking mother (Ellen Barkin, made up to look like a heroin-addicted streetwalker). Dunst is a talented young actress with a great future (she sometimes looks a bit like a young Jodie Foster), and she upstages everyone on screen, including Denise Richards ("Wild Things") as Becky, Amber's hypocritical rich-bitch competition and Kirstie Alley as Becky's mother, a former teen pageant winner who will stop at nothing to see her daughter victorious. The only other character who even resembles a human being is Allison Janney as Loretta, a sort of surrogate mother to Amber.
The whole movie simply reeks of desperation, evidenced by its wide-ranging cast of characters who are utterly bizarre for no reason other than to create ridiculous people who the filmmakers can ruthlessly mock, like the contestant who is obsessed with dogs and another who idolizes her Liza Minelli-impersonating brother. All of this doesn't add up to satirical commentary about a part of American culture. All this says is that Mount Rose, Minnesota, is filled with freaks.
©1999 James Kendrick