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Crude but Clever

Beauty pageants go "mockumentary" in Drop Dead Gorgeous

Drop Dead Gorgeous, a satirical look at a Minnesota beauty pageant, is frequently funny; occasionally eerie, creepy and disturbingly accurate; though too often crude. This crudeness is a flaw, not comedy: Despite jokes about burn victims and beauty queens blowing beets, this "mockumentary" is not crude as in South Park, but as in unsophisticated filmmaking.

Some of the sloppy elements (such as Kirstie Alley's bovine performance as current pageant organizer, former Mount Rose Miss Teen Princess America and contestant mom Gladys Leeman) make it difficult to get into the movie. Didn't 1975's Smile already cover this territory? Between current cable standard Waiting for Guffman and The Blair Witch Project, aren't faux documentaries old news? On the other hand, it's been a long time since we had insightful comedy for and about women, and Drop Dead addresses certain women's issues with savage insight and strong performances. Go along with the first ten minutes, and you'll be drawn into the story.

Former Starship Trooper and Wild Thing (and soon to be Bond girl) Denise Richards and Kirsten Dunst achieve both passion and poignancy in corny, clichéd circumstances. Richards's rich girl, Becky Leeman, has a subtext that shows, always, how hard she's working. Dunst's trailer-trash beauty queen, Amber Atkins, has a core of confidence and dignity. Even though her after-school job is in a morgue. And she practices tap routines while she rouges the stiffs. And her mother seems to be a liability.

Mom, in this case, is Ellen Barkin, chain-smoking and swigging canned beer as single parent Annette Atkins. Barkin plays her part in a style that would make Joan Crawford and Bette Davis proud, and her performance is complemented by fine work from Allison Janney — with big hair and a sassy broad's attitude — as Annette's best friend Loretta. The loyal friendship between Annette and Loretta is welcome contrast to all the sappy "sisterhood" in made-for-Lifetime movies. Women need role models like this — to know that even if you get older, and a little less attractive, you may still have a true friend: one who'll smuggle beer and smokes into the hospital for you, and possibly share your painkillers.

There are, yeah, you betcha, broad jokes about the trailer park crowd, but just as many about the gun-toting Republican rich girl. But as it continues, the movie turns out to be a compelling story with more surprises than missteps.

About those errors: The movie's sloppiness could be from the heavy hand of producers dumbing down the movie, or the inexperience or misjudgment of the filmmakers, but I'd bet on the former, given the filmmakers' sure hand with some tired material.

Anorexia jokes are old hat, tasteless anorexia jokes are sticky indeed, yet Drop Dead has a stunning scene in which the reigning Mount Rose Miss Teen Princess America (the waif's hospitalization is a running gag) performs. Wheelchair-bound, bewigged and wearing the longest, reddest Lee Press-On nails known to man, Mary Johanson (Alexandra Holden) lip-syncs to "Don't Cry Out Loud." That may not sound like comedy, but it hits all the marks — shivers and giggles — makes you laugh and the image stays with you.

And the movie is more than willing to spend time with a minor character such as Johanson, frequently digressing from the central story line, the rivalry between suburban princess Becky and poor-but-honest Amber, for vignettes with pageant judges, other contestants and various townsfolk. Seasoned pros present the asides: Sketch comedy veterans such as The Kathy and Mo Show's Mo Gaffney, Tracy Ullman show cast member Sam McMurray, Saturday Night Live alum Nora Dunn, MAD TV's Will Sasso and Mindy Sterling (fresh from years with the Los Angeles-based Groundlings and now Austin Powers) are joined by Adam West (bring in Batman for kitsch credit). There's also comedy experience behind the camera — director Michael Patrick Jann was a writer and performer on MTV's The State while writer/producer Lona Williams is a story editor and producer for The Drew Carey Show. Williams also has a bit part, which is only natural considering her real-life experience with the Junior Miss Pageant and voice-actress work as Amber Dempsey (a grade-school beauty queen with one eyelash implant) in the "Lisa the Beauty Queen" episode of The Simpsons.

It's entirely possible, as any number of Irwin Allen disaster movies prove, to pile up an all-star cast and still come up with a stinker. Drop Dead, however, has a solid ensemble with a variety of talented comics, four strong actresses (Barker, Dunst, Janney and Richards) and a story and shooting style that's willing to take a few risks. Though it's a bit uneven, all and all Drop Dead is thoughtful, engaging and funny in a sick and very satisfying way.

 
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