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Drop Dead Gorgeous

Violent femmes

By Roy Rodenstein

Directed by Michale Patrick Jann

Written by Lona Williams

With Kirsten Dunst, Kirstie Alley, Denise Richards, Ellen Barkin, Allison Janney

Sometimes determination is an admirable trait. Other times, as in the beauty pageant satire Drop Dead Gorgeous, it’s simply the perfect cause for mockery. Kirstie Alley plays Gladys Leeman, the person in all of Mount Rose, Minnesota, most determined to triumph in the local Miss Teen Princess pageant. Of course, Gladys is not actually a contestant but the mother of the odds-on favorite. She also happens to be running the pageant this year, and as the big day approaches little accidents start to befall other contestants. Coincidence? Not in this movie.

Written by Lona Williams, herself a former pageant contestant, the movie can perhaps be given some leeway in viciously portraying beauty pageants and the occasional deranged or obsessive contestant. Take Gladys’ daughter, Becky (Denise Richards). Rather than an unwilling victim of her mother’s ruthless favoritism, she is only too happy to claw her way to the top. It’s no coincidence she’s the president of the Christian women’s gun club. Then there is Amber Atkins (Kirsten Dunst), the tap-dancing talent who practices her footwork while applying makeup to the deceased for their funeral -- and she just might give Becky a run for her money.

If this mockumentary sounds like another entry in this summer’s gross-out contest, it only partially belongs there. There is certainly plenty of shock humor here, such as Amber’s trailer-park mother Anette (Ellen Barkin) having a beer can charred permanently onto her hand in a fire. Unlike well-publicized scenes in Austin Powers : The Spy Who Shagged Me or American Pie, however, the direction here is subdued by comparison, similar in tone to the sketch comedy show The State, which director Michael Patrick Jann performed in. Whether these scenes are perceived to be funny or offensive will be a matter of personal preference.

For the first hour, the film maintains a steadily mordant pace. Second prize in the pageant is a $75 “scholarship,” and Becky Leeman’s rendition of “Can’t Take My Ryes Off Of You,” sung to a very special man, indeed is satiric brilliance. While the four leads rise to occasional hilarity, there are also great supporting performances. There’s Allison Janney as Loretta, the Atkins’ refreshingly take-charge friend, and Matt Malloy (the meek Howard in In the Company of Men) as a pageant judge with a less than healthy interest in “the girls” who is fittingly paranoid about getting caught ogling them. For a parody of such a well-known slice of Americana, Drop Dead Gorgeous is surprisingly effective at avoiding predictability.

After the pageant ends, the movie’s focus largely vanishes. There is a big explosion, a couple of dull twists and, yes, lots of on-camera fake vomiting. As the amusingly understated direction goes out the window, so does most of the humor. Even the fake Minnesota accents seem to fade in and out at times. At its best, Drop Dead Gorgeous paints a mockingly sunny picture of small-town America and the back-stabbing that goes on out of sight, in the deadpan tradition of movies such as Serial Mom. The momentum in Hollywood has for now swung in a different direction, though, and Drop Dead Gorgeous ultimately succumbs to these summer doldrums.