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DROP DEAD GORGEOUS

by: Scott Renshaw

It's tough to knock a funny film for being not nearly as funny as it could have been -- or thinks it is -- but that's ultimately the problem with DROP DEAD GORGEOUS. Using that increasingly-popular device of the faux documentary, it tells the behind-the-scenes story of a regional beauty pageant in the small town of Mount Rose, Minnesota. Town grand dame Gladys Leeman (Kirstie Alley) is one of the organizers of the local Miss Teen Princess America competition, but she also happens to be the mother of contestant Becky Leeman (Denise Richards). That gives Becky a distinct edge, though she faces her toughest challenge from tap-dancing trailer park ingenue Amber Atkins (Kirsten Dunst). Unless, that is, Amber meets the same sort of untimely end as others who cross the Leemans.

It would be easy enough to call DROP DEAD GORGEOUS a second-rate gloss on Michael Ritchie's SMILE, or a wannabe WAITING FOR GUFFMAN, or a half-hearted THE POSITIVELY TRUE ADVENTURES OF THE ALLEGED TEXAS CHEERLEADER-MURDERING MOM (also, not coincidentally, directed by Michael Ritchie). Such criticisms don't do justice to the number of belly laughs this film provides. Some are exaggerated, like the behavior of one judge's mentally handicapped brother (Will Sasso). Some are subtle, like the production number that finds pageant contestants smearing themselves on freshly-painted stepladders. And some are sharp, like the smoking, drinking, pregnant teen who says she can't make an event because she's "like, due, or something." By the time the talent portion of the competition rolls around -- complete with dog impressions and monologues from SOYLENT GREEN -- DROP DEAD GORGEOUS has provided enough humor to avoid being buried by comparative criticism.

The thing about those comparitive criticisms is that you'd also be right. As scripted by Lona Williams -- herself a former Minnesota beauty contest participant -- the film takes on too many targets to skewer any of them with maximum effectiveness. The peek at pageant contestants finds only the occasional insight, opting instead for broad caricatures and even broader gags. The film's small-town setting is given a similar treatment, with freakishly outrageous characters (including chief overacting offenders Alley and Ellen Barkin) undercutting the more spot-on observations of provincial foibles. In fact, director Michael Patrick Jann almost always opts for over-the-top, making the documentary set-up seem completely inappropriate. It's impossible to get caught up in DROP DEAD GORGEOUS's verisimilitude when the action arbitrarily switches to rapid-fire, multiple-angle edits the likes of which I've never seen in any documentary.

It's that aggravating refusal to look for genuine humor that makes DROP DEAD GORGEOUS so frustrating. When it's funny, it's quite entertaining, but there's always the suspicion that it could have been hilarious with a bit of care. Why make the teen-obsessed judge (Matt Malloy) a nervous, chain-smoking cartoon character patterned after Martin Short's shyster Nathan Thurm? Why continue the story for fifteen minutes after the film's natural climax, including a vomit-spewing journey to the state finals? Why give the one recognizably human character (the wonderful Allison Janney as Amber's surrogate mother) so little to do? Every joke made in DROP DEAD GORGEOUS made me think of a joke missed; every raucous chuckle called to mind an even better sly snicker. It's like a vaudeville act that will do anything to please the crowd, only it's a vaudeville act that thinks it's a wicked satire. You'll laugh, you'll sigh, you'll think about the better films covering similar subject matter. This may be one of the least satisfying entertaining films of recent years.

On the Renshaw scale of 0 to 10 pageants pending: 6.

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