Drop Dead Gorgeous

Aside from those involved, does anyone really take beauty pageants seriously? It takes no particular courage to spoof a subject that most people find ridiculous anyway; great satires like Dr. Strangelove or Citizen Ruth find ways to make you laugh at things (nuclear war, abortion) you never dreamed could be funny. In Drop Dead Gorgeous (the title seems to be searching for a comma), the glittering teenage girls pose and dance, their teeth shiny from the Vaseline smeared on them. The Vaseline is a nice detail — beauty queens do actually do that — and I wonder what might have happened if the screenwriter, Lona Williams, herself a former beauty-pageant contestant, had stuck to the absurd nuts and bolts of what it takes to win these things. I think, in fact, a straight documentary about a beauty pageant might be funnier than this sometimes cartoonish mockumentary.

Not that the movie isn’t funny. It has its moments — it’s just that very few of them have much to do with the subject. We’re in Mount Rose, Minnesota, where people say “Yah” and “You betcha” just like the people in Fargo, and where the townies consider Minneapolis a “sin city.” Lona Williams hails from Minnesota, and her screenplay has a slight whiff of I’m-glad-I-got-the-hell-out-of-there condescension, like Michael Moore’s Roger & Me; but then, nobody said comedy had to be fair to be funny. We laugh at the brain-dead people in these small towns because we know there are actually people like that. But some of them are treated fondly, like Loretta (Allison Janney), a whooping trailer-trash floozy who nonetheless has her own dignity whether she’s making a pass at a cute bartender or going ballistic on a cheerful candy-striper; it helps that Allison Janney projects warmth and sanity no matter what she’s doing.

Drop Dead Gorgeous purports to be a documentary covering the Mount Rose teen beauty pageant, focusing on two girls in particular: Amber Atkins (Kirsten Dunst), an honest striver who works as a morgue beautician and aspires to be Diane Sawyer, and Becky Leeman (Denise Richards), a smiling bitch with no talent to speak of — except maybe on the Lutheran rifle range. Becky is backed up by her monstrous mom (Kirstie Alley), a former pageant winner who has groomed her daughter to follow in her footsteps; Amber’s own mom (Ellen Barkin) is an alcoholic wreck who loves her daughter but isn’t above whacking her with a beer can in moments of stress. The pageant gets interesting when the contestants start dying off in “accidents.”

Actually, that’s where the movie gets less interesting. Drop Dead Gorgeous comes advertised as a black comedy, which has come to mean that people die and you don’t have to care. I would have no problem with this, except that some of the victims — like the one who dies in the thresher explosion — seem so intriguing upon introduction that it’s a shame to lose them. We keep getting thrown back to the main plot, Amber vs. Becky, and I have to say that the movie is not a successful mockumentary: There are just too many scenes that feel like scenes, too many instances when you wonder why the camera is around. Lona Williams and the first-time feature director, Michael Patrick Jann, don’t have a deadpan knack for making absurd situations seem real, as in This Is Spinal Tap or Waiting for Guffman. They also don’t have the performers; Dunst is appealing, Richards is appropriately vicious, but neither of them deliver their lines as if they were real people on camera fumbling for the right words. The movie has very little improvisatory feel; the one exception is the incomparable Brittany Murphy (Clueless, Freeway), playing a spacey fellow contestant. Put a camera on her and she always comes across as a real person.

The movie does have some mean, funny bits; it gets a lot of mileage out of a big retarded guy, and I had fun spotting ace character actors like Matt Malloy (In the Company of Men) as a lascivious pageant judge who denies having any prurient interest in the teenage girls, Sam McMurray as Becky’s oafish dad, and Mo Gaffney and Nora Dunn as a pair of lushes who preside over an upper-level pageant-training seminar (I was disappointed that Dunn’s line about girls getting breast implants at birth didn’t make it into the movie). And in the scenes dealing with last year’s winner, a willowy girl now residing in the local hospital’s anorexia wing, Drop Dead Gorgeous skates right up to the line dividing bad taste and atrocious taste. People take eating disorders seriously, and for this movie to make light of the subject is in extremely questionable taste — which is why those scenes stand out and suggest the truly daring satire this might have been. When the anorexic girl is wheeled on stage and lip-syncs to some schmaltzy ballad, the moment is both dangerously funny and undeniably creepy. That, I think, is the tone Drop Dead Gorgeous is aiming for; it should have aimed more often.

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