"Drop Dead Gorgeous"

A mockumentary about a Midwestern teen beauty pageant turns out to be the guiltiest of this summer's guilty pleasures.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published July 23, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Whatever else you can say about it, the summer of '99 will not be remembered as the summer of subtlety. Climbing mercury and a broader brand of humor have always gone hand in hand, from the era of "Animal House" right through to "Southpark." But this year's really been a standout, with all its pie-shtupping and poop-drinking and giant talking clitorises. After all that, could anything possibly raise our eyebrows ?

Well, yes. In a very crowded field of competitors, "Drop Dead Gorgeous" just may be the most gasp-inducing, un-PC offering yet. Sex and shit, after all, are pretty innocuous targets, but it takes real cojones for a film to take aim at Christianity, eating disorders, voyeurism and the mentally and physically handicapped. The real revelation, then, is that much of it is so genuinely, viciously funny you can't help laughing -- even when you feel really bad about yourself for doing so.

The setting is Mount Rose, Minn., home of the state's "oldest living Lutheran" and an annual local version of the Miss Teen Princess pageant. Under the auspices of chronicling the latter, a documentary crew has been dispatched to the sleepy little town, and what they uncover turns out to be a hotbed of intrigue, sabotage and high weirdness. Among the contestants are a non-deaf teen obsessed with communicating in sign language, a Caucasian whose adoptive Japanese parents encourage her to boast of her proud Asian heritage and the two odds-on favorites: poor but noble mortuary makeup artist Amber Atkins (Kirsten Dunst) and rich and evil Becky Leeman (Denise Richards).

Early on, Becky appears to have the winning edge -- her mother's on the pageant committee and her dad's got all the judges (including a leering local pervert) in his pocket. But someone's clearly not taking any chances, and maybe Becky's mother should stop giving her rifles for her birthday, because her competitors are starting to meet with nasty -- and often fatal -- accidents. With such a sudden drop-off in the town's population, it's no wonder that the documentary crew keeps finding itself greeted by townsfolk inquiring if they're on "Cops."

With its name cast, improbably slick editing and thoroughly over-the-top plot, nobody's going to mistake "Drop Dead Gorgeous" for a real documentary. In a fictional town where careerism is defined as "once a carny, always a carny" and a cigarette-puffing teen claims she can't attend a parade because she's, like, due that day, credibility is clearly not so much on the filmmakers' agenda as is sheer lunacy. And the film's yokely, "yoo betcha" depiction of Midwesterners will seem exaggerated even to fans of "Fargo."

Instead, "Drop Dead Gorgeous" opts for a blasphemous, nearly nonstop barrage of gags -- from a hollow-eyed anorexic beauty queen lip-synching to "Don't Cry Out Loud" to a perky Christian dancing with a plush, life-sized Jesus on the cross. Is this stuff jaw-droppingly tasteless? Yes. Is it also very entertaining to watch? God help me, yes it is.

"Drop Dead Gorgeous" may be mean as hell (you don't even want to know about the Windex-drinking character), but it's impressively inventive. Other comedies this year have suffered not so much from their bad taste as their own incredibly lazy writing, and that's one crime "Drop Dead Gorgeous" can't be accused of. Screenwriter Lona Williams, a former Midwestern beauty contestant herself, may flail about at times, occasionally making jokes where none really fits, but she has a true knack for amusingly surreal dialogue. It helps tremendously that those lines are being delivered by such capable actors, and "Drop Dead Gorgeous" boasts some surprisingly inspired performances -- Ellen Barkin in particular, with her Farrah hair and Naugahyde tan, her hand literally fused to a beer can-cum-ashtray, is utterly fearless as Amber's low-rent but softhearted mom. And the always watchable Allison Janney, as her trailer-trash neighbor, steals her every scene with blowsy charm. As the battling contestants, Dunst and Richards are fine, though they aren't required to do much more than smile or sneer as the situation merits. The only weak link in the cast is the screechy Kirstie Alley, whose psycho mother bit is pretty thankless to begin with.

Because it sets itself up as faux documentary, "Drop Dead Gorgeous" may be creating a higher standard of realism than it ultimately attains. As a successor to, say, "This Is Spinal Tap," it doesn't measure up in breathless, seemingly unscripted chaos. But as an absurdist face of the already absurd real world of small town beauty pageants, it's deliriously outrageous.

In a summer of rude comedies, "Drop Dead Gorgeous" may be the rudest of all, one that eschews cheap body fluid humor (well, except for that group vomit scene) and dares to go for the jugular. It doesn't always pay off, and even when it does you can't help but feel a little mortified. But if the purpose of comedy is still to make you laugh, on that front "Drop Dead Gorgeous" delivers with unabashed gusto. Or, as one enthusiastic character is fond of declaring, it kicks teen princess ass.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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