Leaning hard into ham-fisted mockery of beauty pageants and Midwesterners, "Drop Dead Gorgeous" is an exercise in frustration.
It's frustrating because this mocumentary condemnation of the objectification of teenage girls is ripe with thick, delicious layers of irony, but director Michael Patrick Jann -- whose background is in sketch comedy -- allows that irony to be beaten to death by cheap, madcap overacting.
Following two frontrunners in the fictional American Teen Princess Pageant, "Gorgeous" applies its comedy with all the precision of a paint roller. Wide swaths of disposable laughs come from parading the absurdly varied and one-dimensional contestants before the camera. There's a showtune freak with a drag queen brother, a fat chick, an American girl adopted by Japanese immigrants, a brainiac who wants to do a Shakespeare soliloquy in the talent competition, an interpretive dancer and a soccer dyke -- whose death in a farming accident sets up the plot, revolving around how far one girl might go to win.
That girl, the ruthlessly ambitious daughter of the presiding pageant president, is played in borderline caricature by a Denise Richards ("Wild Things"), who seems to be channeling a high school stage diva wannabe. Asked by the documentary crew why she wants to be a beauty queen, she snaps her bubble gum and answers, "That's like asking why all the guys chew Copenhagen." (One of the movie's miscues is that it targets Midwesterners far more than it does beauty pageants.)
As her mom, Kirstie Alley is just as over-the-top, prefacing her defense of pageants philosophy by saying, "I know what some big city, hairy-legged, no-bra-wearin' women's libbers might say..."
Ellen Barkin, playing the trailer trash mother of another contestant, also gives a high-octane performance, boozing, swearing and offering advice like, "If they ask you to take of your top, get the money first."
In the context of deadpan irony -- a la "Spinal Tap" or "Waiting for Guffman" -- all these characters might have been a hoot. But "Gorgeous" has no sense of moderation. It feels like watching a circus clown cage match.
There is, however, a calm in the storm. The fresh-faced and superbly talented Kirsten Dunst ("Wag the Dog," "Jumanji" and the upcoming "Dick") is pitch perfect as the virtuous heroine contestant, a tap-dancing embalment apprentice with a Diane Sawyer fixation.
As the most serious challenge to Richard's presumed Teen Princess crown, Dunst's astute sense of subtlety in satire rises about the rest of the movie's over-exaggerated farce.
Occasionally hilarious, but only in fits and starts, "Drop Dead Gorgeous" had me holding my sides when Dunst visits the reigning pageant princess in the anorexia ward of the local hospital, and again when the documentary crew and a crew from "Cops" collide at a crime scene. Its Busby Berkeley spoof opening scene is a riot. The blatantly rigged and accident-prone contest -- which we see in its entirety in the last act -- gets a laugh or two. And I must mention the under-appreciated Alison Janney ("The Object of My Affection," "Big Night"), who has a small role as Barkin's best friend, a bitter, chain smoking spinster with tanned leather skin. She practically steals the movie.
But where irony runs a smooth, facetious course in movies like "Spinal Tap," "Guffman" and the similarly-themed "The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom," this movie sadly force-feeds its satire, taking most of the fun out of its savage (and much deserved) skewering of a ridiculous insitution.
If first-time director Jann had only held back the reins just a little, "Drop Dead Gorgeous" could have been a winner.
Run time: 97 mins
In Theaters: Friday 23rd July 1999
Box Office Worldwide: $10.6M
Production compaines: New Line Cinema, Capella International, KC Medien AG
Contactmusic.com: 2 / 5
IMDB: 6.5 / 10
Director: Michael Patrick Jann
Starring: Kirsten Dunst as Amber Atkins, Ellen Barkin as Annette Atkins, Allison Janney as Loretta, Denise Richards as Rebecca Ann "Becky" Leeman, Kirstie Alley as Gladys Leeman, Amy Adams as Leslie Miller, Brittany Murphy as Lisa Swenson, Sam McMurray as Lester Leeman, Mindy Sterling as Iris Clark, Alexandra Holden as Mary Johanson, Matt Malloy as John Dough, Judge #1, Will Sasso as Hank Vilmes, Nora Dunn as Colleen Douglas, Adam West as Himself, Seiko Matsuda as Tina / Seiko Howard, Thomas Lennon as Documentarian (voice)
Also starring: Alison Janney