Drop Dead Gorgeous (1999)

2009-07-20 08:06
 
Drop Dead Gorgeous

Introducing the world to the young Kirsten Dunst, Denise Richards and eventual two-time Oscar nominee Amy Adams, Drop Dead Gorgeous revels in the grotesquerie of that favorite target of satire – the high school beauty pageant, as a setting for a grunge fairytale of murder, self determination, and a whole load of freaky teen beauty queens.

When people think mockumentary, they inevitably think of Christopher Guest and his string of cringe-worthy comedy hits (This is Spinal Tap, Waiting for Guffman, A Mighty Wind). Smart, socially aware, yet never too high and mighty to exclude a simple fart joke, these movies have a following of die-hard fans (who would probably hate the movie Die Hard), but have always been too strange and intellectual for the average moviegoer. Enter Drop Dead Gorgeous, the only comedy to match Guest at his own game, while also being entirely its own beast.

Years before Napoleon Dynamite exposed the world to the twisted denizens of backwater, small town America, Drop Dead Gorgeous trotted out an outrageous cast of weirdoes and freaks for our delight. We get the borderline psychopathic stage mother bent on her daughter winning at any cost, the mentally retarded judge with a fondness for public onanism, and of course the contestants with more quirks than a busload of first-year drama students.

At the heart of Drop Dead Gorgeous is the underdog-makes-good plot of beautiful white trash teen Amber Atkins (Kirsten Dunst) facing off against nouveau rich bitch Rebecca Leeman (Denise Richards) and her ex-beauty queen mother Gladys (Kirstie Alley, in a deliciously nasty performance). Amber is the atypical idea of a pageant contestant – she's a hip, jeans-wearing tomboy who listens to hip rock music on her ever-present Walkman while working in a mortuary in her spare time, and volunteering at the local hospital. Amber is the perfect slacker 90s heroine. So why is she even entering the cornball Sarah Rose Cosmetics Mount Rose American Teen Princess Pageant? Well, Amber has bigger dreams of becoming a TV news anchor like her idol, and former pageant winner, Diane Sawyer.

It’s the cold streak of post Natural Born Killers black humour that sets Drop Dead Gorgeous apart from other teen comedies, and beneath the cheery high school façade beats a cruel and twisted heart. The murder mystery subplot is amusing enough, with some hilarious "accidents" befalling various contestants, but it is the grim John Watersesque details that really shine.

Some of the movie’s best moments come courtesy of “last year’s winner”, Mary Johanson, the balding anorexic who still has her winning smile riveted to her face. On the night of the pageant, the frail, barely alive Mary emerges onstage in a wheelchair and hooked to an IV drip as a nurse dances her while she lip-synchs "Don't Cry Out Loud" - the 'talent' that won her the title the previous year. It is one of those classic comedy moments that will always stay with you, like the scene in Withnail and I where an engorged Uncle Monty bursts into I’s room, or the "Don’t you fuck with the Jesus!" part from The Big Lebowski.

It’s this courage to push boundaries that makes Drop Dead Gorgeous still feel fresh amidst more current edgy comedies like Bad Santa and Borat, and the tasteless gags do come thick and fast. There is plenty of vomit (including a group of teenage models mass barfing after eating bad seafood), corpses, and even a little gore in the form of Amber’s drunkard mother (Ellen Barkin) getting a beer can melted onto her hand in a fire, but it's  the movie's mockery of Christianity that really offended some people.

The evil gun-toting, bible belt princess, Becky Leeman, dedicates her song and dance routine in the pageant to a very special man – Jesus. She then proceeds to dance with a life-sized crucifed ragdoll Jesus on a cross with wheels. It sounds ludicrous, but it works so damn well that I’ll bet even the most easily shocked churchgoer would have to stifle a guilty laugh.

Not content with just alienating the right wing religious types, it also takes a broad swipe at political correctness by having a near obese, mentally disabled man as one of the pageant judges. Constantly screaming inappropriate things and playing with himself, he’s a far cry from Corky. If you find the idea of such a man-child, trapped by his dungaree straps in a car door while being tormented by a group of children, like Frankenstein’s less capable monster, amusing, then you’ve just hit the jackpot.

As childish as it may sound, Drop Dead Gorgeous adds just enough social awareness to its mix to dodge being just a gross-out teen comedy, but uses that gross factor to counter the sentimentality of the central story. With a great cast, endless sight gags, and a cool rock 'n roll soundtrack, it’s a criminally underrated comedy that anyone with even half a sense of humour needs to see.

A little bit of trivia:

- Screenwriter Lona Williams was herself a contestant in local beauty pageants. She appears in the film as the pageant's third, non-speaking judge, Jean.

- Drop Dead Gorgeous marks the movie debut of Amy Adams.

- The movie was originally entitled "Dairy Queens", but was changed after the US corporation that owns the Dairy Queen ice cream chain filed a lawsuit.

Memorable quotes:

Amber Atkins: This is bullshit!
Iris Clark: That is not American Teen Princess language!
Amber Atkins: Well this isn't an American Teen Princess Pageant! This... This... This is Nazi Germany!

[answering "If you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be?"]
Becky Ann Leeman: I'd have good strong roots in a town like Mt. Rose, a solid Christian trunk, and long, leafy branches to provide shade for handicapped kids on a hot summer day.

Jenelle Betz: [at the contestant interviews] The tard's pants are completely off.
Harold Vilmes: [everyone looks at Hank who is obviously spanking his monkey] Close up shop! Close up shop!

Becky Ann Leeman: I chose Mount Rushmore. 'Cause to live in a country where you can take an ugly old mountain and put faces on it, faces of great Americans who did so much to make our country super great. Well, that makes me Rebecca Leeman, proud to be an American.

Gladys Leeman: Hey hey, Miss Penthouse '98, close those legs, I could drive a boat show in there.

Pastor: And so, dear Lord, it is with deep sadness that we turn over to you this young woman, whose dream to ride on a giant swan resulted in her death. Maybe it is your way of telling us... to buy American.
 
Freaky teen beauty queens rule in this mockumentary that uses a beauty pageant as a setting for a grunge fairytale of murder, shameless self-promotion, and making it big in a small town.

What to read next: Buy the DVD at Kalahari.net

Amanda 2009/07/22 7:50 AM
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A classic, very underrated film.
Rene 2009/07/22 5:11 PM
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A very underrated movie, for sure. Offers a gobsmacking glimpses into small-town, God-crazy country. And that dance with the Jesus effigy is just priceless!
Prodigy 2009/12/22 10:46 AM
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I agree with Amanda, very underrated... Brittany Murphy is awesome!
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