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Drop Dead Gorgeous

Review by David Luty
Posted 30 July 1999

Drop Dead Gorgeous   Directed by Michael Patrick Jann

Starring Kirstie Alley,
Ellen Barkin, Kirsten Dunst,
Denise Richards, Brittany Murphy,
Allison Janney, Will Sasso,
and Amy Adams.

Written by Lona Williams

The most audience-satisfying route to take in the writing of funny characters is to provide laughs that arise naturally from the characters' personalities. In something like This is Spinal Tap, you have three hilarious heavy metal musicians who, through their different levels of self-deluded stupidity, deliver plenty of laughs. By contrast, the easiest and least audience-satisfying route to comedy is to merely slap a single outrageous attribute onto each character. That's the route taken by Drop Dead Gorgeous, and it's not a fun road to travel. It's actually a dishearteningly vicious and ugly one, populated with extraordinarily cheap, mean-spirited jabs at middle America. Funny it is not.

Drop Dead GorgeousThe premise of Drop Dead Gorgeous promises a cutting look at the superficiality and catty competitiveness that drives the beauty pageant institution, but what the film actually delivers is just a series of paper thin caricatures. The agenda of the writer appears to be to, first, set the story in Minnesota, so as to give all the characters a Fargo-like Scandinavian lilt to their speech. The beauty of what the Coens did with the funny accent was to make it a single element of a larger cultural persona. But Drop Dead Gorgeous is interested in neither personality nor culture. It's interested in having you laugh at the mere existence of a mentally handicapped buffoon, or an anorexic ex-pageant winner, or a sexually deviant pageant judge, or an anti-Semitic contestant parent. This is the sort of lazy writing performed by someone writing for the first time, who thinks any and all ostentatious goofiness they can throw into the mix has automatic laugh value.

If a writer cannot muster up interesting, funny characters, the other route to laughs is in the creation of situations built for hilarity, the level on which most sitcoms work. But Drop Dead Gorgeous cannot even reach that high -- it is a film almost entirely without situation. Drop Dead GorgeousIt has the form of a mockumentary, like Spinal Tap, with a camera crew conducting a series of interviews with the key characters, but at the same time, it attempts to push out a conventional plot, one that's consistently jumbled and choppy. The mockumentary angle is oddly absent of a point of view, and the only apparent reason for adopting the form is to smooth over the writer's inability to tell a coherent story. The basic plot line concerns the teen beauty-pageant competition between pure as snow Amber (Kirsten Dunst) and manipulative ice queen Becky (Denise Richards), each running with the assistance of their harpy moms (Kirstie Alley and Ellen Barkin). The performance of Richards is the film's one bright spot, she is the one performer who underplays her broadly written role, and she does so beautifully, delivering each line with a chillingly detached sweetness. The rest of the actors are right in line with the film's shallow, bargain-basement game plan.

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