Taking bazooka aim at a barn-door-wide target -- hinterland beauty contests -- "Drop Dead Gorgeous" is a fitfully amusing satire that would have gained a lot of mileage from just a tad more subtlety. Short on star power and unlikely to get much critical support, pic looks likely to fade fast after opening weekend's marketing push, with better prospects ahead in vid bins and cablecasting.

Taking bazooka aim at a barn-door-wide target — hinterland beauty contests — “Drop Dead Gorgeous” is a fitfully amusing satire that would have gained a lot of mileage from just a tad more subtlety. Short on star power and unlikely to get much critical support, pic looks likely to fade fast after opening weekend’s marketing push, with better prospects ahead in vid bins and cablecasting.

Premise is that a camera crew is hired to document a “typical” small town’s participation in the 50th annual Miss American Teen Princess Pageant, as publicity for its corporate sponsor. (Pic begins with a mock Sarah Rose Cosmetics promo reel, hosted by erstwhile TV Batman Adam West.) The burg chosen is Mount Rose, Minn., population 5,076; its claim to fame is as home to “the World’s Oldest Living Lutheran” — or it was, until she died.

Scenarist Lona Williams wastes no time thumping home that these “good folk” are yokels. Cow-tipping, hockey-playing, trailer-dwelling, racist-talking, everything-goes-better-with-butter yokels, in fact. Early progress introduces each perky teen contestant in turn, from the spaz (Shannon Nelson) to the sexpot (Amy Adams), as well as various pageant organizers and judges.

Favored to win are both sweet, Diane Sawyer-worshiping Amber (Kirsten Dunst) and scheming little vixen Becky (Denise Richards). Given that latter is daughter to the town’s richest businessman, and that her mother (Kirstie Alley) is a former Teen Princess hellbent on keeping the crown in-family, no one seriously doubts the outcome.

But somebody is very serious about ensuring it. First one contestant dies in a suspicious threshing-machine mishap, then Becky’s boyfriend, whose eyes have been straying toward Amber, experiences a fatal “hunting accident.” Next, Amber’s trailer-park home is torched, home-beautician mom (Ellen Barkin) inside — she survives, albeit with a beer can now melted into her fist. Docu film crew seems more interested in investigating these crimes than the well-bribed local police.

Tension builds toward pageant night, as the girls go through their tacky-glamorous paces. Competing against dog-bark imitations, a “Soylent Green” monologue and Becky’s devotional dance with a life-size Christ on the crucifix, tap-dancing Amber emerges as the clear talent-division winner. (Heavy editing suggests it’s not Dunst’s fast footwork we’re watching, however.)

Inexplicably, Williams (co-exec producer of TV’s “The Drew Carey Show”) and debuting feature director Michael Patrick Jann don’t let this broad but fairly funny climactic set piece end the film. Instead, pic meanders on to eke out heavy-handed justice, give Alley’s foiled character an Evil Queen curtain speech and follow one character further down the national-runway path.

“Drop Dead Gorgeous” invites comparison to any number of similar exercises, from Michael Ritchie’s “Smile” to the excellent telepic “The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom.” In every department, from credibility of the faux-doc conceit to the sardonic eye cast on small-town small-mindedness, current effort comes up colorful but short. Its worst trait is confusing satire with condescension — everyone here is either stupid, venal or perverse. Pic doesn’t have the writing sophistication to render its more questionable jokes (involving anorexia, pedophilia, prosthetic limbs, embalming, mental retardation and pidgin-English-speaking Japanese stereotypes) fully comedic. Instead, they’re tasteless, with plenty of profanity to further delight less discerning auds. Even a goat with full-to-bursting udders is worth a gag shot here, just because.

Nonetheless, fast pacing makes this a relatively pain-free, if brain-free, diversion. The performers do their best to rise above often crude material, all the while brandishing requisite “Fargo” accents. A charming Dunst and droll Allison Janney (as her mama’s best friend) fare best by treading lightest. Barkin, Alley and Richards (reprising her rich-bitch turn in “Wild Things”) are game but stuck in one-dimensional caricatures. That limitation weighs less heavily on bit players; fleeting glimpses of the dumb-as-dirt general populace reveal some savvy visual casting.

Tech package is glossy — further undermining any “docu” credence — with plenty of rock-tune soundtrack filler.

Drop Dead Gorgeous

(Comedy)

Production

A New Line Cinema release presented in association with Capella/KC Medien. Produced by Gavin Pallone, Judy Hofflund. Executive producers, Claude Rudnick Polstein, Donna Langley, Lona Williams. Co-producer, Michael Nelson. Directed by Michael Patrick Jann. Screenplay, Lona Williams.

Crew

Camera (Astro color, Deluxe prints), Michael Spiller; editors, Janice Hampton, David Codron; music, Mark Mothersbaugh; music supervisor, Evyen Klean; production designer, Ruth Ammon; art director, Maria Baker; set decorator, Helen Britten; costumes, Mimi Melgaard; sound, Mack Melton; choreographer, Jerry Mitchell; assistant director, Linda Brachman; casting, John Papsidera. Reviewed at Variety Club Screening Room, San Francisco, June 23, 1999. MPAA rating: PG-13. Running time: 99 MIN.

With

Amber Atkins - Kirsten Dunst Annette Atkins - Ellen Barkin Loretta - Allison Janney Becky Leeman - Denise Richards Gladys Leeman - Kirstie Alley Lester Leeman - Sam McMurray Leslie Miller - Amy Adams Molly Howard - Tara Redepenning Tess Weinhaus - Shannon Nelson Jenelle Betz - Sarah Stewart Tammy Curry - Brooke Bushman Iris Clark - Mindy Sterling John Dough - Matt Malloy Harold Vilmes - Michael McShane Hank Vilmes - Will Sasso With: Lona Williams, John T. Olson, Casey Tyler Garven, Nora Dunn, Mo Gaffney, Adam West, Richard Narita, Patti Yasutake, Seiko Matsuda.
With: Lona Williams, John T. Olson, Casey Tyler Garven, Nora Dunn, Mo Gaffney , Adam West, Richard Narita, Patti Yasutake, Seiko Matsuda.
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