Drop Dead Gorgeous (1999) is a little too mean-spirited and trashy for me to ever be able to recommend it unreservedly, but I’ve seen it three times now over a span of several years, and there are still plenty of (slightly guilty) laughs to be had, thanks largely to the stellar cast. First and foremost, of course, is Kirsten Dunst (of Get Over It fame) playing ‘Amber Atkins’, a small town girl with big dreams… specifically to win the Sarah Rose Cosmetics American Teen Princess Pageant, and follow in the footsteps of her idol, newsreader Diane Sawyer. A mockumentary film-crew follow her as she tap-dances her way around the prep room of the funeral home where she works as a “beautician”, and then back to her trailer park home, where she lives with her single, beer-swilling mother… and the crew are also there to capture Amber’s horror and grief, as her fellow contestants start dying in increasingly inexplicable “accidents”. Throughout it all, Dunst projects the sort of wholesome, perky charm that marks her out as a true movie star… and also as a shoo-in for the pageant queen crown. So you’d think her “happy ending” would be a given from the get-go, but there are plenty of strange twists and turns lurking between her initial application and the end credits!
Her main competition in the early stages comes from the richest girl in town, ‘Becky Leeman’, who also happens to be the daughter of ‘Gladys Leeman’, head of the pageant organising committee! Becky is played by Denise Richards, who used to be a favourite of mine as a teenager… I mean, I haven’t seen her in very much since the glory days of Wild Things and Starship Troopers… but this movie reminded me that aside from being stunningly beautiful and smokin’ hot, she can also be very entertaining in the right role. Becky is quite a compelling character actually… a proud, gun-carrying Christian, who masks her ruthless ambition behind a cute, chipmunk grin and corny, sentimental sound-bites. I think Richards plays the part perfectly, but sadly she doesn’t score an equal amount of screen time with Dunst. Meanwhile, her mother, Gladys, is played by Kirstie Alley, who seems to be doing a spookily prescient impersonation of Sarah Palin. Actually, her character’s probably slightly saner than Palin, but I’m sure they’d get along famously if they ever bumped in to one another down at the shooting range. Gladys’s second-in-command, ‘Iris Clark’, is played by Mindy Sterling (of Austin Powers trilogy fame), while her husband’s mute, mousy assistant ‘Jean Kangas’ is played by the movie’s writer, Lona Williams (her character also doubles as one of the pageant’s totally impartial judges).
As for the other contestants, the late Brittany Murphy (of Clueless fame) appears as the adorably cute and giggly ‘Lisa Swenson’, who gets some fun scenes to herself, and makes a very sweet sacrifice for Amber in a moment of crisis. This movie also introduced an impressively assured Amy Adams (of Enchanted fame) to the movie-going public… and it’s amusing to see a future “Disney Princess” playing such a bawdy character as ‘Leslie Miller’, the cheerleader who can’t stop making-out with her boyfriend long enough to record a coherent to-camera introduction. In one of my least favourite “gags”, the local pageant’s former-winner is depicted as a feeble, wheezing anorexic, played by Alexandra Holden… who is probably best known now for appearing in Friends as Ross’s college-age girlfriend, ‘Elizabeth Stevens’. Other notable cast members are Ellen Barkin as Amber’s mother, and Allison Janney (of West Wing fame) as her mother’s sweary best-friend… who becomes something of a surrogate matriarch, when Amber’s actual mom is incapacitated, in circumstances I won’t spoil. Oh, and there’s a very brief cameo by Mo Gaffney (of AbFab fame) as one of the organisers of the state pageant finals.
Overall, I find the plot a little muddled (for instance, the unfortunate “accidents” that plagued the local pageant continue, long after the culprit has been unmasked and arrested), and it isn’t a patch on similar “black comedy” classics like Heathers and To Die For… but, as I said before, it still keeps me laughing, even while I’m cringing at the (intentional and unintentional) tackiness of it all.