Beauty is a beast in "Drop Dead Gorgeous," an obvious but fitfully amusing parody of skin-deep values, small-town small-mindedness and the foolhardy quest for a rhinestone tiara.
Ironically, the filmmakers don't seem to realize that their movie is even shallower and sillier than its targets. Though screenwriter Lona Williams based the story on her own adventures as a Minnesota beauty contestant, it might just as well be the work of a cloistered nun for all the insight it shows into the perkiness-powered world of Vaseline smiles and winking sequins.
The film gets underway when a documentary film crew turns its cameras on the dairyland community of Mount Rose, Minn., in the giddy days leading up to the Miss Teen Princess America Pageant. We are there as the crew tapes the contestants at home, at school and rehearsing for the talent portion of the pageant.
We are also there as the director interviews the townsfolk--a cheese-loving, cow-tipping, predominantly Lutheran people whose can-do spirit is captured by the favorite local catch phrase, "Yah, you betcha." While the characters sound a little like the heartlanders of "Fargo," they are far less funny or genuine. No one here would make a suitable prairie home companion.
Gladys Leeman (Kirstie Alley), a wealthy and self-righteous former princess, now runs the annual pageant, which has become a rite of passage for Mount Rose's teens. "If you're 17 and you're not a total fry, it's just what you do," says one competitor. Indeed, most girls sign up even though Gladys's daughter, Becky (Denise Richards), seems sure to win.
Reared to succeed in this arena, Becky is poised, polished and pretty darned shameless when it comes to chasing titles. Let a hearing girl perform a song in American Sign Language. She'll top that by singing "You're just too good to be true, can't take my eyes off of you" to a stuffed Jesus on a cross.
Amber Atkins (Kirsten Dunst), also the tap-dancing daughter of a former titleholder, is the only contestant with a legitimate talent and the only one with a prayer of beating Becky. Amber, who lives in a trailer park with her single mom (Ellen Barkin), washes dishes in the school cafeteria and makes up corpses at the mortuary to make ends meet. The bright and ambitious young woman believes that winning the pageant will help her achieve her goal of becoming a TV anchor like her idol, Diane Sawyer.
As the contest draws nigh, one of the contestants is crushed in a threshing machine mishap. Then Amber opens her school locker and finds a photo of the dead girl inscribed, "You're next." But the spunky tap-dancer refuses to be intimidated.
Dunst is charming, Barkin cheeky and Allison Janney wonderfully droll as Barkin's best friend. Unfortunately, Alley's comedic talents, marshaled by director Michael Patrick Jann, are considerably smaller than her bovine backside. They are, however, in keeping with the material, which pokes fun at retardation, pedophilia, embalming and prosthetic limbs.
All in all, "Drop Dead Gorgeous" is pretty damned ugly.
Drop Dead Gorgeous (99 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for crude language and humor.
CAPTION: Kirstie Alley and Denise Richards are the pageant chairman and her daughter.