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December 18, 2007 |

By Stacey Nosek | Underappreciated Gems | December 18, 2007 |

I don’t recall the exact turn of events that led me to watching Drop Dead Gorgeous for the first time. It was during the hazy college years not long after the movie was released on VHS, and most likely picked up by a friend for an apathetic evening of movie viewing. What I do remember very clearly, however, was the dawning realization — not unlike seeing the “Arrested Development” series premiere after months of repetitive promos — that, “Oh shit, this is actually hilarious.” Hilarious in a way that a film about a beauty pageant starring Kirstie Alley, Denise Richards and Kirsten Dunst had no business whatsoever being hilarious. Yet there it was. Which probably explains why the film, released in 1999, went mostly unnoticed by moviegoers, clocking in with just a total of $10 million. Drop Dead Gorgeous was written by Lona Williams (also appearing in a small role as pageant judge), who has no other notable credits to her name aside from being a writer/producer for “The Drew Carey Show.” So I would like to respectfully request: Lona — if you’re out there, please come out of hiding. Really, we need more of you.

Filmed in the faux documentary technique that has become popular recently, it’s not surprising to find former “The State” troupe member Michael Patrick Jann serving as director, who these days is helming the similarly styled “Reno 911!.” In fact, careful observers may even have picked up that the voice of the unseen documentarian is none other than Jann’s fellow “State” alum and “Reno” star Thomas Lennon. The film is set in the fictional town of Mount Rose, Minnesota, where the annual “Sarah Rose Cosmetics American Teen Princess Pageant” is taking place — a competition traditionally used as a way, other than getting pregnant, to stave off boredom by the local teens. Gladys Leeman (Kirstie Alley), a former Mount Rose American Teen Princess herself and the bitchy, Midwestern matriarch of the wealthiest family in Mount Rose, is in charge of the pageant. This year’s pageant in particular is special in that Gladys’ daughter, Rebecca Ann “Becky” Leeman (played by a nearly 30-year-old Denise Richards), is competing, and is unenthusiastically favored to win among the locals. When Becky’s biggest rival, Tammy Curry — who additionally beat out Becky as president of the Lutheran Sisterhood Gun Club — winds up dead by way of tractor explosion, the other girls start getting nervous about someone taking out the competition. While I don’t know too much personally about the exciting world of beauty pageants, from what I’ve gathered this seems more or less accurate.

With Tammy out of the way, the biggest upset to Becky’s crown lies in Amber Atkins (Kirsten Dunst), a poor, tap-dance loving girl living in a trailer park who aspires someday to leave her small town to follow in the footsteps of her idol, Diane Sawyer, while working after school as a corpse painter at the local funeral home. I gotta say, as much as I personally loathe Dunst (seriously, she’s got to be in the top 5 on my shit list) she is well suited for this role in an unremarkably charming sort of way. Amber’s mother, Annette (hysterically played by the magnificent Ellen Barkin), is also a former pageant winner with misguided support for her daughter. Even after a failed murder attempt lands Annette in the hospital with a beer can welded to her hand (after getting blown up in her trailer), she still lovingly insists that her daughter compete in the pageant by assaulting her with her beer can-hand.

The show goes on regardless, with the expected murdery beauty pageant hijinx. Rounding out a stellar cast are Brittany Murphy as the ditzy Lisa Swenson, a contestant who idolizes her drag-queen brother; Amy Adams (as mentioned in a recent round-up) as a vapid, promiscuous cheerleader type; Michael McShane (Seinfeld’s FDR) as a local business owner/pageant judge with Will Sasso as his retarded brother; and Allison Janney as Loretta, the Atkins’ slutty neighbor in the trailer park who takes Amber in after her mom gets blown up. Janney totally nails it with the spandex, home perm and hoop earrings; between her and Barkin, they give the best two comedic performances of the film.

As one familiar with Jann’s previous work on “The State” and “Reno 911!” might expect, the humor is inappropriate and irreverent; it borders on offensive by taking pot shots at the deaf, mentally challenged, anorexia, pedophilia, and religion. all the while poking constant fun at Midwesterners in general. One of the most exceptional scenes in Drop Dead Gorgeous involves Richards’ character wearing a poodle skirt and dancing with a live-sized, crucified Jesus to Frankie Valli’s “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You,” as seen here in this (unfortunately watermarked) clip:

While I have to admit she does make an outstanding bitch, Richards herself is probably the most noticeable flaw in the whole thing. As evidenced in the clip, she can’t sing worth a damn, she’s not the best comedic actress, and she’s pretty much the only one in the cast who didn’t have the accent nailed down flat. Although, on the bright side, it only makes it more fun to hate stupid Denise Richards in addition to her stupid, bitchy character.

Before I wrote this review, I pulled my Drop Dead Gorgeous DVD out for the first time in a couple years to refresh my memory, and honestly? It made me laugh just as hard, if not harder, the twentieth time as the first. Not unlike Office Space, which incidentally came out the same year (to the same sad-sack audience reception, no less), it’s just one of those great, quotable comedies that never loses its appeal.

Stacey Nosek is a television columnist for Pajiba, and lives in the scenic woodlands of rural Pennsyltucky. You can also find her ripping on celebrities at Webster’s Is My Bitch.


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