Friday, July 23, 1999

Pageant idles on the runway

Movie: Drop Dead Gorgeous

Posted on Fri, Jul 23, 1999 at 4:00 AM

***
Our Rating: 3.00

Ever sit through an entire beauty pageant? Remember how surprised you were that a few of the contestants exhibited genuine poise, charm and talent -- and how it made your patience for the remaining tripe even shorter than usual?

You'll feel the same watching "Drop Dead Gorgeous," an uneven comedy about the backstage dramas behind a small-town teen debutantes' contest. Like its subjects, this film will stop at nothing to win, throwing darts and duds around with abandon in the hope that one will hit its mark with the judges.

Deserving of the tiara is Amber Atkins (Kirsten Dunst), a dirt-poor trailer queen whose dance skills are the closest her Minnesota hamlet comes to breeding ability. Dunst slips into Amber's spats with ease, her balance of cheer and resolve portending a smooth transition from child stardom to adult roles. Amber's nemesis is the brattish Becky Leeman, a part Denise Richards infuses with comically exaggerated churlishness.

Unnecessarily, the film grants equal time to their one-dimensional runners-up. The funniest? A wannabe starlet unable to choose between "Othello" and "Soylent Green" for her dramatic reading.

Less is definitely warranted of Kirstie Alley as Becky's fiercely competitive stage mother. Unconvincing as a born-and-bred Minnesotan, Alley tosses off her half-hearted "you betchas" like "Fargo's" Frances McDormand stumbling into "Veronica's Closet."

More energy is wasted on a subplot that sees Becky's challengers dying mysterious deaths whenever they fly too close to her flame. A bombastic concept that's totally out of place in a homespun satire, it's flirted with as a sop to the post-"Heathers" school of dark comedy.

"Drop Dead Gorgeous" is on firmer ground when it keeps its focus narrow and inbred. Though the American Teen Princess Contest is a linchpin of the Midwesterners' lives, they're confused when a camera crew arrives to document the prestigious event. Most appear a little fuzzy on the idea of documentary filmmaking to begin with.

"Is this 'Cops'?" they repeatedly ask. No one tells them it isn't. Why disappoint?

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