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Beauty contests are under the gun
of this film's great, deep dark wit
Kirstin Dunst

"Drop Dead Gorgeous"

Reviewed by John Orr

(Click on the images to see larger version and credits.)

About the time you see the lovely and talented Kirstin Dunst practicing her tap-dancing on the tile floor of a mortuary, while touching up the faces of the newly dead with cosmetics, it's going to occur to you that "Drop Dead Gorgeous" belongs in a special category of filmmaking.

That category, of course, is black humor, home, in this case, to some hilarious and powerful satire.

Writer Lona Williams and director Michael Patrick Jann point their barbed instruments at beauty pageants, in the main, but also take on the entire state of Minnesota -- after all, we can't leave it to the Coen brothers ("Fargo") to do all the heavy lifting when it comes to making fun of a state that would elect Jesse Ventura governor.

Some sample dialogue, to give you an idea of what we're dealing with here:

"They remade my belly with skin from my butt!"

"We're gonna use the money to get our mom a proper headstone ... and to, uh, move her out to the cemetery."

"Well, this cheap whore is that family's loving mother!"

"Well, yeah, Tammy liked to drive her dad's thresher, but, I mean -- I mean, she said the heavy vibration helped her think. But I know for a fact that Tammy only smoked after a good drive!"

Click on me!Welcome to Mount Rose, Minnesota, where when you are 17 and a boy, you start up with chewing tobacco; if you are 17 and a girl, and "not a total fry," you enter the American Teen Beauty contest, sponsored by a cosmetics company.

A film crew is on hand to record this year's contest for a documentary. "Drop Dead Gorgeous" is the film. One of my favorite running gags is how many times people in Mount Rose ask the film crew if they are from "Cops."

This particular year, the three leading entrants are Amber Atkins (Dunst), the daughter of bear-swilling, cigarette-chimney Annette Atkins (a hilarious Ellin Barkin), who years ago competed in the same contest; Rebecca Leeman (Denise Richards), whose mother Gladys (the brilliant Kirstie Alley) won the contest 17 years before; and Tammy Curry (Brooke Bushman), who recently took the presidency of the teen girls gun club away from Rebecca.

Tammy dies in a mysterious thresher explosion -- giving Rebecca back the presidency of the gun club -- so the real competition is down to just Amber and Rebecca.

Click on me or I'll blow your brains out!The film crew drops in on all the contestants, asking about their lives, the pageant, the talents they are going to demonstrate at the pageant.

Amber is a tap-dancer; another girl is an actress who does a reading from the film "Soylent Green." Rebecca's performance, at the pageant, is so amazingly vicious (in terms of satire) that I refuse to describe it here; watch the film and be disgusted yourself.

The film crew also drops in from time to time on Mary Johanson, last year's pageant winner, who is a resident of the eating disorders clinic at the local hospital, what with her anorexia and all.

Alexandra Holden is stunning in this role. Hilarious. With hollow cheeks, darkened eye bags and hair falling out, she almost never stops showing her teeth in a perfect beauty contest smile. Before the pageant, the film crew asks her what her own experience was like the previous year. Connected to IV tubes and monitors, her breathing is labored.

"Two weeks until the pageant. (Breath.) I was practicing my talent, (Breath.) finishing my costume, (Breath.) brushing up on current events, (Breath.) and running 18 miles a day on about 400 calories. (Breath.) I was ready."

What she does at this year's pageant is so shocking that it is another item I will save for your surprise when you see it.

There are hair-pulling backstage fights, wet paint on all the contestants' butts and some other deaths. Lots of bang for the buck.

Kirstie Alley, as Rebecca's mother, is hilarious. Ya know ... it's such a shame that her TV show, "Victoria's Closet," is such a stink bomb; Alley is one of the funniest comic actors working today. It's great to see her strut her stuff in this film, Minnesota accent and all, as the pretentious, possibly homicidal, rich bitch who's really only upper middle class. "I told you, I'll move the car if a cripple wants to use the space," she says.

Click on meEllen Barkin is also hilarious ... her co-star is a beer can ... you'll understand when you see it. She's wonderful in the role.

Allison Janney is a delight as Amber's surrogate mother (when Barkin's character is in the hospital). She was excellent as Barbara Fitts, the colonel's wife, in "American Beauty"; this role is about as far away from that performance as you can get and still be on the same planet.

Denise Richards went on from this film to appear in a Bond film, "The World Is Not Enough." She was better in this role.

There are many excellent and amusing performances in this creative and no-holds-barred film; if I had a hat on, I'd take it off in honor of the entire cast.

Highly recommended.

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