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Drop Dead Gorgeous

movie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: Drop Dead Gorgeous

Starring: Denise Richards, Kirsten Dunst
Director: Michael Patrick Jann
Rated: PG-13
RunTime: 95 Minutes
Release Date: July 1999
Genre: Comedy

*Also starring: Ellen Barkin, Kirstie Alley, William Sasso, Brittany Murphy

Review by Dustin Putman
3½ stars out of 4

"Drop Dead Gorgeous" may be a breakthrough in mainstream comedy. The first standard-made faux-documentary to be released wide, the typicals of the film are anything but standard, as it manages to grab almost non-stop jokes out of the red-hot, fast, and furious screenplay by Lona Williams, many of which are more offensive--and hilarious--than, dare I say it, "American Pie" or "South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut." Like 1997's marvelous mockumentary, "Waiting for Guffman," "Drop Dead Gorgeous" captures small-town life dead-on, but with an obvious satiric edge, and is entertaining from the first frame to the last.

At the outset, we are told that a documentary crew has travelled to the sleepy farming town of Mount Rose, Minnesota to make a film about the upcoming annual Mount Rose Miss Teen Princess America Pageant. Preparation is well underway for the nine contestants, all of which we get to meet through the course of the film. The shoo-in to win is stuck-up Becky Leeman (Denise Richards), whose wealthy mother, Gladys (Kirstie Alley), is a former Mount Rose Pageant winner, and who is the president of this year's festivities. Becky's obvious main opponent happens to be Amber Atkins (Kirsten Dunst), an innocent soul who lives in a trailer home with her beer-guzzling, caring mother, Annette (Ellen Barkin), and often practices her tap-dancing steps at work--as she puts make-up on the corpses at a funeral home. Amber's main motive for entering the pageant in the first place is because she sees it as her only way of getting out of Mount Rose, and dreams of being the next Diane Sawyer. However, being the back-stabber that Becky is, there is no hiding the fact that she will stop at nothing to triumph over everyone else, even if that means murdering some of the other contestants. Meanwhile, we are told, the documentarians are required to act as merely spectators, and cannot get involved in the goings-on that are occurring around them.

"Drop Dead Gorgeous," vibrantly directed by Michael Patrick Jann, pulls out all the stops to give us one of the most snappy, biting comedies to come out in some time, and that the film is rated PG-13 is rather amazing considering some of the sure-to-be-controversial story elements. Taking its cue from 1974's similar teen beauty pageant movie, "Smile," which may have been more realistic but is nowhere near as amusing, director Jann and writer Williams will do anything for a good, hearty laugh, even if it means going over into the bad-taste arena, and it serves up enough fresh, saucy ideas for two movies.

The plot thickens when Amber receives a picture in her school locker of one of the recently-deceased ex-contestants, with the words, "You're Next," sprawled along the back. Soon after, her trailer home mysteriously explodes with her mother inside. Luckily, Annette survives (she luckily landed in a flower-bed) and is just sent to the hospital, albeit with a severely burnt hand that has a beer can welded to it. Amber understandably begins to fear for her own life, but is convinced by her mother and mother's best friend, Loretta (Allison Janney), to carry on. The pageant itself is the centerpiece of the film, and it is a true show-stopper, with last year's Mount Rose princess, currently residing in a wellness home for anorexics, coming on-stage in a wheelchair and an IV machine by her side to lip-sync a song. Call it sacrilegious, but another hilariously off-kilter scene has one of the contestant coming out for the talent section and singing "You're Just Too Good to Be True," as she serenades and dances with a dummy of Jesus on the cross.

The cast is uniformly excellent across the board, particularly 17-year-old Kirsten Dunst, as the sweet Amber, who, no doubt about it, has one of the brightest acting futures ahead of her for anyone in her age group. Dunst constantly chooses interesting, intelligent roles and does not conform to anything she doesn't believe in. She also has proven that she can perform in any genre and will sparkle, and here she does just that in one of her few comedic roles (although briefly appearing in 1997's comedy satire, "Wag the Dog"). As Amber's nemesis, Becky, Denise Richards plays her bitchy role perfectly, even though she isn't given nearly as much to do as Dunst. She sure can carry a shotgun well, though! Kirstie Alley, like Richards' character, is extremely spiteful, but also very funny, especially in the final section of the picture, when her character goes right off the deep end. Ellen Barkin, as well as the irreplacable queen of quirky supporting roles, Allison Janney, add a certain warmth to their scenes, as Amber's loving family and confidants ("It was never hid from me," says Amber matter-of-factly, "that my dad put work over family. After all, once a carny, always a carny."). Also in notable smaller roles is Matt Malloy, as one of the slimy judges who is constantly trying to hide from the camera that he has a thing for underage girls; Will Sasso ("Mad TV") as another of the judge's retarded grown sons; Amy Adams as a good-hearted, if flaky, pageant contestant who tells Amber if she dies, to "be sure to cover up the hickeys on my neck, and ears, and upper thighs;" and Brittany Murphy, as the upbeat, giggly Lisa, another Mount Rose Teen Princess hopeful.

Topped with a memorable, catchy soundtrack, successful documentary-like cinematography, by Michael Spiller, and an endless stream of laugh-inducing, outrageous dialogue, "Drop Dead Gorgeous" is a huge comic winner, and one of the best times at the movies I've had all year. The offensive (to some) subject matter is sometimes mean-spirited, but doesn't get so bad as to become repugnant, and balancing out the savage comedy is a big, warm heart. Amber (who, in her spare time, visits and cares for the current anorexic Pageant winner), Annette (who hopes that her daughter will be able to follow her dreams and not end up like her in a dead-end existence), and Loretta (who doesn't have a true family but acts as a sort of loving surrogate mother for Amber) are such likable people, and an endearing combination, that you find yourself very much rooting for them, and wondering just why Becky and Gladys and the other spoiled sports of Mount Rose couldn't all just get along.

Harvey Karten -1 6 2 2000

While you're still trying to figure out the answer to the classic philosophic question, "If a tree falls in the forest with no witnesses, does the tree make a sound?" you can ponder yet another one. If a movie billed as a comedy has not a single laugh, can it still be called a comedy? This movie is yet another parody of the type of event that is itself so asinine it needs no satirist. "Drop Dead Gorgeous"--so named to exploit a double meaning (one of which being an implicit quote from the principal character, "Drop dead, gorgeous"--this film features vulgarity for its own sake rather than crudeness in the pursuit of humor. The inspiration for the movie is perhaps Michael Ritchie's 1975 production "Smile," which spotlighted a superior cast including Bruce Dern, Barbara Feldon and Melanie Griffith centering on behind-the-scenes activity at a California "Young American Miss" pageant. While "Smile" symbolized the emptiness of American middle-class existence, "Drop Dead Gorgeous" goes after targets too vulnerable to defend themselves, including the mentally retarded, the deaf, poor Mexicans, anorectics, small town rubes and trailer trash. In taking pot shots at rural hollowness, director Michael Patrick Jann does not even opt for the miscarried outrageousness of Harmony Korine's plotless dud "Gummo"--about poor white trash in a desolate Ohio town whose citizens get their jollies from shooting cats and selling the bodies to the local supermarket.

"Drop Dead Gorgeous" features Kirstie Alley in the role of Gladys Leeman, the town's richest women, who is emceeing a teen beauty contest but is hardly impartial. Her own daughter, the vacuous Rebecca (Denise Richards), has been trained by Gladys to push all the right buttons to score points with the judges.

To get a measure of the numbing inauspiciousness of Alley's performance as an assassin, one need only compare her dispatch of the hackneyed role with that of Holly Hunter--who won an Emmy for her portrayal of the obsessed Houston housewife who plots to kill her daughter's competitors for spots on the cheerleading squad in Michael Ritchie's "The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom."

Directed like Myles Berkowitz's "20 Dates" as a mock documentary, scripter Lona Williams's story spotlights Alley's ineptitude but focuses as well on the two 17-year-olds considered the leading contestants in a teen beauty pageant held in a heartland Minnesota town. The confident Rebecca Leeman (Denise Richards) is pitted against a perpetual motion machine, Amber Atkins (Kirsten Dunst), the contestants now numbering eight when one of the girls is mysteriously burned to death in a tractor accident. Though the two major contenders are from different sides of the track in the town of just over 5,000 people, they are equally ambitious. Ultimately, Amber will conclude the movie in a scene that recalls Tracy Flick's triumph in "Election." Director Jann is himself attempting ineffectually to capitalize on that film's critical and box office success.

While vulgarity need not be off-putting and can, in itself, be the source of considerable humor (witness the hilarious inventiveness of "South Park" and "American Pie"), in "Drop Dead Gorgeous" the boorishness is plain obtuse. Examples: Amber gleefully dances about the room of a funeral home while she tackles her evening job as an embalmer. The teen queen of 1945 is taped moaning that after she won, she "did not even get to keep my damn tiara--I had to turn it in for scraps." The billboard that announces the town to drivers has an obsolete picture of its "oldest living Lutheran," but the mayor groans that "sons of bitches would not even remove the sign." Two enormously fat guys--one a judge, the other his mentally challenged brother--slap each other around for a while. A dance instructor teaches the teens their steps while dangling a cigarette from her lips. Later, when one of the other judges, disgusted with the disabled man's behavior, asks rhetorically, "Why don't you leave him with a sitter," he gets the answer, "That's not nice--you know the sitter is dead." And when Amber's trailer mysteriously catches fire, her mom, Annette Atkins (Ellen Barkin), is seriously burned, her can of beer soldered to her hand.

One of the questions asked of the contestants by a judge is "If you were a tree in the forest, what would it be?" Here's another one--for the production team: "If you were asked to turn out a comedy, when do you think you could arrange it?"

Copyright 2000 Dustin Putman

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