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Dustin Putman

Dustin's Review
Drop Dead Gorgeous (1999)
3 Stars

Directed by Michael Patrick Jann
Cast: Kirsten Dunst, Denise Richards, Kirstie Alley, Ellen Barkin, Allison Janney, Sam McMurray, Brittany Murphy, Amy Adams, Mindy Sterling, Matt Malloy, Will Sasso.
1999 – 99 minutes
Rated: Rated PG-13 (for violence, profanity, and non-stop offensiveness).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, July 24, 1999.

"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.

©1999 by Dustin Putman

Dustin Putman