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Comedy More Dead Than Gorgeous

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 23, 1999

  Movie Critic


'Drop Dead Gorgeous'
Kirsten Dunst and Denise Richards compete in a beauty pageant in "Drop Dead Gorgeous" (New Line Cinema)

Director:
Michael Patrick Jann
Cast:
Kirsten Dunst;
Denise Richards;
Kirstie Alley;
Ellen Barkin;
Allison Janney
Running Time:
1 hour, 38 minutes
PG-13
Contains hardcore slapstick gore and sexually sleazy material
Oooh, I know what they're doing in "Drop Dead Gorgeous." They're making funny!

Welcome to Mount Rose, population 5,076. A small town in Minnesota that hosts a good ol' back-stabbing little affair known as the Mount Rose Miss Teen Princess America Pageant. In this mockumentary about the lip-glossy politics of a small-town beauty competition, Kirstie Alley is Gladys Leeman, the tres American-gothic matriarch and former Miss Teen Princess pageant winner, who has been running the contest ever since with arch, God-fearing efficiency.

This particular year, Gladys has a special interest in the contest. Her schemingly perky daughter Becky (Denise Richards) is taking part, and Gladys means to do everything in her itty-bitty power to make sure Becky wins. Fairly, of course. And if fair doesn't work, sabotage will be fine.

Among the many locals (cue those Coen Brothers accents) vying for Becky's preordained title: Amber Atkins (Kirsten Dunst), a bright gal who lives with her roadside mother, Annette (Ellen Barkin) in a trailer park. Amber wants to be a television anchor, just like Diane Sawyer! But she hardly comes from the right background. Mama drinks, Mama swears. But unfortunately, Mama isn't nearly as funny as performer Barkin thinks she is.

After a long preamble, in which we meet a cast of goofy, eccentric contenders, it becomes clear that Amber's going to be Becky's main opponent. Amber's problem, bless her, is that she plays by the rules. She's going to be facing an uphill battle all the way.

Screenwriter Lona Williams and director Michael Patrick Jann spare no attempt to show characters at their zaniest, wackiest or most grotesque. The effect is disconcerting. Is this light comedy or dark satire? It ends up being neither.

We meet a table full of "eccentrics" who'll judge the Lovely Ladies, including a chain-smoking pervert who's cagey and defensive when the unseen camera crew asks him questions, and a tubby hardware store owner whose retarded son is always doing something weird or sexually suggestive in the background.

The most grotesque event of all occurs when beer-swilling Annette falls afoul of a suspiciously planted explosion chez la trailer. After surviving the blast, she realizes her hand – which was clutching a brewski at the time – has become permanently welded to the beer can. We're obliged to guffaw at that gruesome sight gag for the rest of the movie, as Annette constantly raises her beer-can-toting hand to cheer her daughter at the pageant.

Thanks to such movies as "Smile," "Citizen Ruth" and the infinitely funnier "Waiting for Guffman," this kind of genre is already an overdone deal. Unless someone comes up with particularly inspired material, it's just not that bone-ticklingly hilarious to watch "small town people" being "overly religious," talking in "Minnesota accents" and showing us America at its "small-town funniest."

   
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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