Drop Dead Gorgeous

on July 23, 1999 by Francesca Dinglasan
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   The quirks of life in Middle America are the targets of "Drop Dead Gorgeous," a humorously effective mockumentary that captures the events surrounding a small-town beauty pageant. Set in Mount Rose, Minn., the black comedy's fictional camera crew sets out to film contestants in the local Miss Teen Princess Pageant, the first step in a progressive series of contests that pits bubbly young things against one another-all of whom are vying for the chance to represent their hometown and state at the national competition.
   At the center of the film are contestants Amber Atkins (Kirsten Dunst) and Becky Leeman (Denise Richards) and their respective mothers, Annette (Ellen Barkin) and Gladys (Kirstie Alley). Gladys, the head organizer of the town competition and a former Miss Teen Princess champion herself, will stop at nothing to ensure that Becky follows in her footsteps as a Mount Rose beauty queen. Patronizingly superior about their wealth, role in the community and place in God's eyes, the Leemans contrast starkly to the Atkins, sweet-natured trailer park trash who view the contest as a way for Amber to escape the trap of small-town life.
   Progressively building to the heated showdown between Amber and Becky at the pageant, the film's most hilarious moments happen to be the most wicked. Some highlights include an explosion "mysteriously" going off near the Atkins' trailer, sending Annette to the hospital with a beer can permanently melted into her hand; Amber sharpening her tap-dancing skills while working at her after-school job as a mortuary make-up artist; and Becky singing and dancing across a stage with a life-sized figure of Jesus on the cross for the "talent" portion of the competition.
   While "Drop Dead Gorgeous" mostly succeeds in hitting the mark with its dark humor, its most obvious and significant flaws are its misses. Pedophilia, Japanese-American stereotypes and abusive treatment of the mentally retarded are not necessarily above satirical treatment; however, the scriptwriting is not quite deft enough to draw the intended chuckles for its more sensitive issues, which mildly provoke at best, and, at worst, downright offend as well as reinforce racist and prejudicial thinking. However, these weaker elements are proportionately few compared to the stronger material, making "Drop Dead Gorgeous" dead-on entertaining.    Starring Kirsten Dunst, Kirstie Alley, Ellen Barkin, Denise Richards and Allison Janney. Directed by Michael Patrick Jann. Written by Lona Williams. Produced by Gavin Polone and Judy Hofflund. A New Line release. Black comedy. Rated PG-13 for some language and violence. Running time: 97 min.
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