WFTB Score: 9/20
The plot: Mount Rose, Minnesota is home to the area finals of the Sarah Rose Cosmetics American Teen Princess Pageant, a contest celebrating its 50th anniversary. Gladys Leeman, Event organiser and former winner, is confident that neither perky poor girl Amber nor any of the other girls will obstruct her daughter Becky’s path to victory; and a sticky end awaits any of the contestants who look as though they might.
The beauty pageant has had a tough time of it this last twenty years. Always an essentially naff concept, by the start of the nineties beauty contests had practically disappeared from public view, vilified as outdated, sexist relics of a paternalistic age, only to come back coated with a new, critic-proof sheen of irony. It’s in this vein that Jann’s would-be documentary Drop Dead Gorgeous presents the contestants of the awkwardly-named American Teen Princess Pageant; but is it a Little Miss Sunshine-like swan or an ugly Carry On Girls-style duckling?
Gladys Leeman (Kirstie Alley) is the local pageant organiser in the small farming town of Mount Rose, Minnesota. A winner of the contest herself back in the day, she now has a very nice life thanks to furniture-salesman husband Sam McMurray, and she fully intends to use the family’s influence to boost the chances of haughty gun-wielding daughter Becky (Denise Richards), by both picking and bribing the judges (Mike McShane, Matt Malloy and the film’s screenwriter Lona Williams).
Not that the competition is particularly fierce, in the main, since it includes chubby dog fanatic Tess Weinhaus; Molly Howard, adoptive daughter of enthusiastically pro-American Japanese parents (with a disgruntled natural child); toothy nymphette cheerleader Leslie Miller, complete with ubiquitous jock boyfriend; and Lisa Swenson, eccentric devotee of her brother’s New York drag act. But then there’s Amber Atkins (Kirsten Dunst); although she’s so poor she has to work in a funeral home and a canteen, she is both perky and talented, driven by an overwhelming desire to emulate Diane Sawyer that impresses her dipso mother (Ellen Barkin) and her mum’s friend Loretta (Allison Janney).
Amber is clearly a threat, so when ‘accidents’ start happening around the contestants – farm girl Tammy’s thresher explodes before she gets on stage, Amber’s admirer Brett gets shot in the head, the Atkins’ trailer blows up – suspicions are rife that things are rigged in Becky’s favour; suspicions more or less confirmed by Amber’s insanely difficult interview with the judges and Gladys’ refusal to let Amber on stage when her tap outfit – suspiciously – goes missing (luckily, Lisa steps into the breach).
It’s easy to invoke the name of Chris Guest at the mention of the word ‘mockumentary’, but to be absolutely fair to Drop Dead Gorgeous, it came out before his excellent Best In Show. Jann’s film is different in approach to Guest’s films, in any case, as while Guest’s actors inhabit the characters and let most of the jokes come spontaneously out of their mouths, the characters here are tightly-scripted, and each scene is engineered to deliver one particular joke.
And to be fair (again) the film features a decent sprinkling of funny moments, the height of the satire displayed in the anorexic state of the previous year’s winner, Mary Johanson (Alexandra Holden); but equally, there are bits that don’t work at all, and one of these is a supposed high point, after Amber has wowed the audience with her tap dancing. I have no theological concerns about Denise Richards dancing with a foam Jesus on a cross whilst singing You’re just too good to be true, but in execution the joke falls completely flat (Richards can’t sing, Jesus looks cheap, the crowd aren’t sufficiently shocked), and what should be outrageous comes over as tasteless for effect. The same is true later on when the film runs out of ideas and brings us mass vomiting in the state finals.
Perhaps one reason why the film doesn’t really work is that the young cast fail to stamp their personalities on their parts (there are too many contestants, too); and while Kirstie Alley works hard, the stand-out performances come from Malloy as the disturbingly keen judge John Dough and – of course – the brilliant Allison Janney, who guides Amber after her mother is confined to a wheelchair.
One more thing about the plot: the film sets up Gladys Leeman, her daughter, or both, as manipulative cheats, prepared to do anything to ensure Becky triumphs; and it is something of a disappointment to discover that all is exactly as it seems to be. I understand that making Amber either the shock winner, or the cynical genius behind the ‘accidents’ out to frame the Leemans, might have been a corny move (Bob Roberts?), but seeing the story play out completely straight is deflating – as is the extremely telegraphed nature of Becky’s post-win demise.
Furthermore, it’s a shame that when the film goes to great lengths to assert its documentary nature – the crew fall over into shot, meet up with a crew from Cops, and there are captions explaining the doctrine of non-interference – an intrusive soundtrack takes away from the movie’s otherwise naturalistic feel, often appearing out of nowhere and treading on actors’ lines.
Given the subject matter, it’s perhaps no surprise that Drop Dead Gorgeous comes across as broad and a little crass, and slightly inappropriate for a documentary format that favours subtler material. The cast could have done with a little more comic talent to free up the scenes, but this might also be a problem with the subject matter – beautiful and funny is a rare combination indeed. That said, Drop Dead Gorgeous raises enough laughs to pass a perfectly pleasant hour and a half, so long as you adjust your brain – not to ‘drop dead’, exactly, but to ‘slightly vacuous’.