Drop Dead Gorgeous (1999)

D: Michael Patrick Jann
S: Kirstie Alley, Kirsten Dunst

A small town beauty pageant reveals the dark underside of American pride as wrong-side-of-the-tracks Kirsten Dunst (Interview With the Vampire), faces off against society babe Denise Richards (Starship Troopers), daughter of obsessive pageant organiser Kirstie Alley. There is potential in Lona Williams' screenplay. She populates her world with grotesque characters who match the absurdity of the premise and she mixes satire and knockabout farce quite well. The central conceit of presenting the story as a documentary (a subgenre often called 'mockmuentary') has not been done well since This is Spinal Tap though, and the final quarter peters out more because Williams has run out of material than because of any nods to nonnarrative form. Director Michael Patrick Jann does not help matters by frequently failing to adhere to the formal parameters of documentary, and pushing much too hard with certain dramatic and/or comedic elements for specific effects. The result is an uncomfortable mix of Farrelly Brothers-type mayhem and Michael Ritchie's Smile which lacks the coherence of either.

There are pleasure to be had all the same, with some of the gags hitting home and some of them providing tantalising glimpses of something far more potent: Alexandra Holden is the reigning town champ, an emaciated anorexic who is wheeled on stage at the contest to perform a song, presenting a terrifying but hilarious moment of genuine darkness, Richard Narita and Pattie Yasutake play a pair of vehemently integrationalist emigrants eager to prove their loyalty to their country by ignoring their beautiful daughter (Seiko Matsuda) in favour of adopted American Tara Redepenning, Michael McShane is an overweight, retarded miscreant whose response to the personal interviews with the teenage girls is to drop his pants, Matt Malloy is a jittery pharmacist named "John Dough" (geddit?) who clearly has a shady past which the voyeuristic spectacle of teenage girls displaying their bodies brings into question (though it is never explored). Alas the film never quite sticks the knife in, and despite these and other ideas, it remains a great trailer in search of a movie.

The performances are some compensation. Kirstie Alley is entertaining as the former winner now living vicariously through her daughter. It is always clear however that she is playing broad comedy, and there is never a moment of documentary hesitation in which we wonder if such a person might exist. Again Michael Ritchie comes to mind, this time his hilarious TV-movie parody The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom, where Holly Hunter's persuasive performance completely immersed us in a convincing world despite the edge of unreality which pervaded the entire film (based on a true story). Dunst and Richards are somewhat more successful in this regard. Richards is particularly believable and has a terrific air of self-conscious hypocrisy which she plays very well. Ellen Barkin turns in another of the movie's homages to the Farrelly Brothers as Dunst's mother (even to the point of where she ends up with an artificial arm like Woody Harrelson in Kingpin), but Allison Janney is a nice counterbalance as her best friend. All of the supporting roles have been filled nicely, and each of the girls competing in the pageant has enough quirky mannerisms to give the actors a chance in the limelight.

It is disappointing that the whole thing eventually becomes silly, and the misjudged final quarter leaves a rather sour aftertaste, because there are plenty of things in here which could have made for a genuinely funny movie. As it is the film is a mixed bag at best which runs out of steam and becomes tedious, though there are yuks along the way and there is always a sense of something just out of sight which is worthwhile. Casual viewers may get more from it than those familiar with its formal and thematic predecessors, but it's still not the best time you can have in a movie theatre this year. Wait for video. No harm done.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1999.