Saturday, July 22, 2023

#2,919. Drop Dead Gorgeous (1999) - Kirsten Dunst Film Festival,


In the grand tradition of Christopher Guest (Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show), 1999’s Drop Dead Gorgeous is a mockumentary about a small-town beauty pageant that everyone in this particular community believes is the biggest event of the year.

A documentary crew has just arrived in Mount Rose, Minnesota, to make a film about the town’s American Teen Princess Pageant. The host of the event, Gladys Leeman (Kirstie Alley), herself a former Teen Princess, is hard at work organizing the competition. This year’s pageant is particularly special to Gladys because her daughter, Becky (Denise Richards), now 17, is eligible to compete. Everyone in Mount Rose is convinced the pageant will be fixed, and that Becky, whose father (Sam McMurray) also owns the most lucrative business in town, is a shoe-in to be the next Teen Princess.

But she will have some competition this year. Amber Atkins (Kirsten Dunst), who is the nicest, most popular girl in school, is the local favorite, and dreams of following in the footsteps of her hero, news broadcaster Diane Sawyer, who also got her start winning a beauty pageant. Then there’s Leslie Miller (Amy Adams), a cheerleader who isn’t shy about showing off her body (especially to her boyfriend, the captain of the wrestling team). With such a wide range of lovely and popular young women, it's anyone’s guess as to who will be the winner.

That is, until some unfortunate “accidents” befall a number of contestants. Apparently, someone in Mount Rose is willing to go to great lengths, possibly even murder, to ensure their choice will be crowned this year’s Teen Princess!

Like Guest has done in his best movies (and even a few of his marginal ones), director Michael Patrick Jann and screenwriter Lona Williams make the bizarre characters of Drop Dead Gorgeous seem perfectly normal. Amber intends to do a tap routine during the pageant’s talent section, and practices while at work, dancing around as she applies make-up to the recently deceased at the local funeral home. Becky is a driven young woman who is also president of the local gun club, a position she recently inherited when the previous president (and pageant contestant) Tammy (Brooke Elise Bushman) was killed in a mysterious tractor explosion. Each and every character has their quirks. Amber lives in a trailer park with her mother Annette (Ellen Barkin), a beer-swilling chain smoker who does her neighbor’s hair on the side. When Annette walks in on the documentary crew interviewing Amber, she gives her daughter some advice: “If they ask you to take your top off, make sure you get the money first”.

Kirstie Alley is perfectly cast as the pageant’s organizer, Gladys, a woman who loves Jesus and America, and isn’t afraid to put down anyone who doesn’t. Equally good in supporting roles are Mindy Sterling as Iris, Gladys’s assistant; Matt Malloy as one of the judges, doing his best to hide his pedophilic tendencies; and Allison Janney as Annette’s oversexed best friend.

Each and every character in Drop Dead Gorgeous is quirky, some to the point of being disturbing (especially Natt Malloy), and all have that “Minnesota Nice” persona, talking as if they would have been right at home in the Coen Brothers’ Fargo. Yet as strange as everyone in Mount Rose seems, and as funny a black comedy as Drop Dead Gorgeous is (things get especially dark once the pageant is underway), the audience does, much like with Guest’s films, form a genuine connection with its characters as the story progresses.

We know it is all played for laughs, and the movie gets plenty of them (a visual gag involving an explosion, a beer can, and Annette Atkins’ hand proved hysterical). But there is a humanity here as well, and I think it comes through in both the writing and the performances. You will definitely laugh at Drop Dead Gorgeous, but you may also shed a tear or two.
Rating: 8 out of 10

No comments: