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Drop Dead Gorgeous
starring: Kirstey Alley, Kirsten Dunst, Denise Richards, Ellen Barkin

by David
Spring, 1999

(editors note: While David leaves out all mention of it, this is the first feature film to show off his fiancee, Shannon Nelson, in a large role. She plays Tess Weinhaus, and is damn funny. He caught this one at an early press screening.)

If you can't get enough of hokey Midwestern stereotypes, thick Minnesota Iron Range dialects, inappropriate comedy at the expense of the mentally challenged (hereafter -- retards) and folks with eating disorders, and people shooting guns and blowing each other up, then this is the film for you!

And I'm with ya.

Drop Dead Gorgeous (formerly titled Dairy Queens) is the story of a local teen beauty pageant in the small town of Mont Rose, Minnesota -- ostensibly a few hours away from Minneapolis/St. Paul. Filmed in Minneapolis and the surrounding area, it stars Kirsten Dunst (Interview with the Vampire) and Denise Richards (soon to be the next "Bond girl") as competing pageant participants. Kirstey Alley and Ellen Barken play their mothers, and the cast is rounded out by a handful of very funny newcomers (Shannon Nelson, Tara Redpenning, Lori Sinclair, Amy Adams, Sarah Stewart) and the increasingly popular Brittany Murphy (Clueless) as pageant competitors, Adam West as a pageant MC, Allison Giani as Ellen Barkin's best friend, Mindy Sterling (Austin Powers) as Kirstey Alley's crony, and Will Sasso (MadTV) as the local retard. The entire film is done in a "mockumentary" style, reminiscent of This is Spinal Tap and Waiting for Guffman and, though it is perhaps not as carefully crafted as its predecessors, this film certainly delivers the laughs.

The film focuses on Amber Atkins(Kirsten Dunst), a poor trailer-park waif with dreams of winning the "Mont Rose American Teen Princess" crown so she can get out of small town Minnesota and grow up to be like her idol, Diane Sawyer. In her way are Gladys Leeman (Kirstey Alley), the local pageant coordinator, and her ridiculously beautiful and evil daughter, Becky (Denise Richards), who also happens to a member of the Lutheran Sisterhood Gun Club. The competition turns ugly when Becky, slated to win the pageant, and her mom begin to feel threatened by Amber's sweetness and overwhelming talent (she's a top-notch tap-dancer) and decide to put a stop to the competition altogether. Other pageant competitors (all of whom, except for Brittany Murphy, were cast out of Minneapolis) obviously stand no chance of winning the pageant, but do provide the majority of the laughs in the first two-thirds of the film.

Highlights of the film are the girls' preparation for the pageant (dance rehearsals, interviews with the families), Allison Giani's and Ellen Barkin's delightfully crass portrayals of a trailer-trash mom and her best friend, a disturbingly funny interview with the previous year's "Mont Rose American Teen Princess" (now so weak from her anorexia that she is bed ridden and can barely speak), and Will Sasso's hilarious romps as the retarded brother of one of the contest judges.

Despite the closeness of the small screening room and the usual stuffiness of such audiences (nearly all of the 30 or so attendees were reporters and reviewers), this film had everyone in the room laughing aloud from the very beginning. Much like last summer's dark comic hit, There's Something About Mary, this movie makes no apologies for its completely inappropriate humor. At one disturbingly funny point in the film (as the anorexic former pageant winner's hair is coming out in clumps as it is brushed), a lady in front of me remarked (as she caught her breath between snorts), "I can't believe I'm laughing at this -- it's just so damn funny."

And it is. Lona Williams's (who is a former Miss Teen Minnesota, by the way) script is absolutely hilarious. All of the actors (including Denise Richards, whom I normally cannot stand) do a very good job in their roles. The only weak link is that a handful of the scenes lack a sense of motion -- an easy trap to fall into when filming in this documentary style. These few glitches can be blamed on the directing (Michael Patrick Jaan) and editing (and may well be fixed before release), but ultimately do not hinder the film.

Of course, a large number of people will be offended by this film. The portrayals of the mentally and dietary challenged are not kind (though damn funny). Many midwesterners will take offense at yet another comedy at the expense of small-town Minnesota. But I must say that I was born and raised in North Dakota and lived for several years in Minnesota, and, like the screenwriter, I can separate those parts of the film that are straight out of my experience from those that are completely fabricated, and laugh at them all.

Over all, this film is a dark, funny look at the beauty pageant world, and the pressures it puts on our young women every year as "Miss America," "Miss Teen USA," "Miss Universe," and others roll around. Though it will not be in theaters until later this summer, I would advise to keep it in mind and, once you've seen the Phantom Menace a couple of times, take a break and go check this one out. You will not be disappointed.

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