Drop Dead Gorgeous continues the trend of dark satire on the screen, which would include such films as Happiness and the French Sitcom. More specifically we are in a subgenre which we could call high school flick cum satire, Rushmore and Election both being well-received recent entries in that rather narrow category.
There is some very funny stuff in Drop Dead Gorgeous. Set in a small town in Minnesota, the story revolves around a local beauty contest, the bottom rung of a series of competitions of ever widening geographical scope, culminating in the Sarah Rose Miss Teen Princess America Pageant. Anyone who has watched the slickly produced Miss America pageant on television knows that these exercises in the packaging of feminine youth as commodity for advertising exploitation, combined with family values and flag waving, god-and-country patriotism are virtually self-spoofs. A sitting duck, then, but screenwriter Lona Williams, in her first outing, manages to find enough targets to mock with enough wit to keep a steady flow of laughs going.
Williams uses the framing conceit of a documentary being filmed about the pageant to allow direct communication between the characters and the audience, as represented by the invisible camera and crew making the film. Credit her script and the direction of Michael Patrick Jann, also debuting here, with making the device work and keeping the pace moving at the fast clip needed to sustain this sort of material.
Gladys Leeman (Kirstie Alley) is the now matronly, once-upon-a-time beauty queen who runs the local pageant with more than enough smarmy, patronizing meanness to be a clay pigeon for pratfalls. This year her daughter, Becky (Denise Richards), is a contestant and no ploy is beneath consideration for ambitious Gladys to secure the title for her daughter. Indeed, a series of strange accidents starts to occur, knocking out some of the key competition. Becky is never really developed as a character, acting as an extension of Gladys’ will, but she does have one terrifically funny scene when she participates in the talent portion of the competition and ends up dancing with Jesus on a cross.
The major challenger is Amber Atkins (Kirsten Dunst in a fine turn), trailer park trash up against the Leemans – the richest family in town. She’s ambitious, too, idolizing Diane Sawyer, but she is sweet and unspoiled. Ellen Barkin is suitably de classe as her mother, a smoking, beer swilling hair dresser. Amber’s father is out of the picture. "He left the family for his career," she says. "Once a carny, always a carny," says Mom’s good friend, Loretta (Allison Janney).
The targets of the satire are many, extending well beyond the contest itself and ranging from candy-stripers to perverts, class differences to patriotism and religion. But a good deal of the humor is deliberately and blatantly politically incorrect, aimed at minorities (Jewish, Mexican, Japanese-American), anorexics, the retarded, the deaf, amputees. Some of this material is undeniably funny, but it will surely be painful to some viewers and reinforce negative prejudice in others. When those considerations start coming up in this reviewer’s mind, the material just doesn’t seem so funny any more.
On a less significant note, Williams and Jann also were sufficiently insecure in the rest of their material to find it necessary to join the recent spate of totally vulgar crudity as a source of (presumed) humor, including a scene of group regurgitation. Such material weakens rather than strengthens any claim to comedy/satire above the lowest commercial common denominator. The market buys it, though. Maybe the next target of such satire should be the people who create it.