Any gathering with old friends inevitably includes this moment: I make a joke about something horrifying and everyone laughs even though you can tell by the pained looks on their faces they kind of hate the part of them that finds it funny. Then one of them says some variation of, “That’s why we keep Justin around.” Like a lot of people who deal in humor, I see the ins and outs of jokes before they happen, and since laughter is fundamentally based on surprise, I laugh at odd things. Consequently, my humor can get a little… dark. I’m not trying to shock anything, I’m just saying something that makes me laugh and maybe it will for someone else. Besides, I’ve learned that the way to deal with darkness is either to laugh or cry, and laughing is way more fun. I guess what I’m trying to say is don’t invite me to funerals.
Back in 1999, my mother told me I had to see this movie, Drop Dead Gorgeous, for one specific scene. That scene is the talent portion of a local beauty pageant in which Stepford Sexbot Becky Leeman (Denise Richards) breathily talk-sings the Frankie Valli classic “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You,” while dancing with a giant crucified Jesus doll. It’s a brilliant scene that pretty much hits every corner of my sense of humor. It’s the perfect display of that kind of tawdry piety that would become increasingly popular in the following decade, so in addition to being absolutely hilarious, it’s possibly the work of a sorcerer. The film had already won me over by the time that scene rolled around with its odd combination of Midwest grotesquerie, earnest charm, and offbeat humor.
The movie itself is a shaggy dog, concerning itself with the pageant and a few of the characters beyond it, offering a mockumentary evisceration on pageant culture, the boundless rage behind the exaggerated niceness of Minnesota, and pretty much anything else the creators chose to throw in. Those creators are writer Lona Williams, who drew from her actual experience as a pageant contestant in Minnesota, and appears as the third, non-speaking judge, and Michael Patrick Jann who you remember in a few non-speaking roles on MTV’s The State and possibly your nightmares. In a strange way, the world was primed for a story like this. Drop Dead Gorgeous feels like the spiritual heir of two other movies from 1996: the mockumentary structure, absurdist humor, and obsession with small-town minutiae owes a debt to Christopher Guest’s fantastic Waiting for Guffman, while the Minnesota accents and pervasive darkness comes directly from the Coen masterpiece Fargo.
The story opens in 1995 (making this a period piece of a sort), for the 50th Anniversary of the Sarah Rose Cosmetics American Teen Princess Pageant. A documentary crew (predominantly voiced by State ace Thomas Lennon) has arrived in Mount Rose, Minnesota, population 5,076, to witness the city-wide pageant. The winner will go to state, and from there to the big show in Lincoln, Alabama. The exposition is done in a promotional film, which features Adam West lampooning his image a year before Family Guy would call on him to do the same (and prompt TV tropes to turn his name into a participle). The video instantly undercuts the glamor of the pageant by having the host, a former winner, nonchalantly reveal she works at a pork packing plant. The film’s sharpest running gag features characters talking up the importance of the pageant, and then contrast it with some horrible side effect. The most effective features last year’s winner Mary Johanson (Alexandra Holden), a sweet space cadet currently hospitalized with anorexia. Her “triumphant” return to the pageant is too funny to spoil.
The pageant is run by local bigwig and former winner Gladys Leeman (Kirstie Alley, ripping into that accent like no one’s business), and mother of the aforementioned Becky. This should create some kind of conflict of interest, but the entire town accepts that nepotism will carry the day with a sense of grim fatalism. The Leemans are the richest people in their tiny corner of Minnesota, so of course they’re going to come out ahead. This year, there appears to be a serious threat to Becky’s winning: Amber Atkins (Kirsten Dunst) a bubbly trailer park resident who practices her tapdancing while at her after-school job, which is doing hair and makeup for corpses at the local mortuary. The other serious threat, star athlete and president of the local Lutheran girls’ gun club, is shortly murdered on her tractor.
That’s the kind of story we’re dealing with. Someone — and through most of the story it’s heavily hinted that it’s monstrous Becky — is knocking off her competition and really anyone who gets in the way. Her archnemesis is Amber, who through sheer luck dodges several attempts that lay waste to everyone in her general vicinity. There is a ton of darkness in the story, but it’s ultimately the funny kind, as the killers are mostly harmless and everything is through the lens of fundamentally good-hearted Amber. It helps that the movie is damn funny, with many of the jokes, in true mockumentary fashion being muttered asides and actions that directly contradict the story the actors are trying to tell.
The cast is absolutely stuffed with ringers. Dunst is great as Amber, proving that between this, Dick, and The Cat’s Meow, she’s got some seriously good comedic chops. Ellen Barkin gets some good moments as Amber’s mom, balancing her performance between that of a boozy trailer park curmudgeon and genuinely loving mother who wants her daughter to achieve all her dreams. Richards doesn’t even attempt the regional accent here, but she’s not called upon to do much other than act archly, polish a gun, and sing an inappropriate love song to a doll. Kirstie Alley seems to be channeling Sarah Palin in her performance, which is impressive considering the film came out nine years before McCain broke the final seal and unleashed Palin upon the unsuspecting world. Sam McMurray, Allison Janney, and Mindy Sterling all play parts as locals, and these three are basically national treasures who elevate already good material to lofty heights. The contestants feature a few recognizable faces, including Brittany Murphy as giggly Lisa Swenson, reminding us why we loved her, and Amy Adams in her movie debut as dimwitted Leslie Miller. They’re all wonderful, and pretty much any interview with any one of them produces the best laughs of the movie.
As much as I love the film, it does have flaws. The structure doesn’t quite work, as the entire movie is the build up to the pageant followed by the pageant itself… and then another half hour of movie. That’s not to say that the tail end is laugh free — it definitely has its solid moments — but after the pageant, the movie runs out of a lot of the steam its built up. It doesn’t help that the villains are all dead or incarcerated, and all of the non-Amber contestants abruptly vanish from the narrative. The film ends with a “Where Are They Now” that only includes Amber, one of the three judges, and Leslie, which is just an egregious oversight. I bonded with Lisa, Tess, Michelle, and all the others, and a last moment with them should have been required. At least tell me that obvious sex criminal John Dough, one of the judges, had something awful happen to him. That’s all I need.
Drop Dead Gorgeous came back into my consciousness with a piece Buzzfeed ran on it. The movie was a failure at the time, but has picked up a richly-deserved cult audience in the last fifteen years. Considering how terrifyingly prescient it is, we might want to look at it as some kind of lipstick-smeared oracle.