Girls Dropping Left and Right
Drop Dead Gorgeous
How dark is too dark for a comedy? Released in 1999, Drop Dead Gorgeous is the darkest of dark comedies, told with a bright and perky polish that belies then many events that occur within the film. Ostensibly it's a bubbly movie about a beauty pageant, set in a quaint little small town, but very quickly masks start dropping, people start dying, and the movie quickly illustrates that it's not just some run-of-the-mill flick for girls, but something much darker and far more unrelenting about its comedy... but for girls.
Written by Lona Williams (who also wrote the cheerleader crime film Sugar & Spice) and directed by Michael Patrick Jann, the film was made for $15 Mil and yet still managed to flop at the Box Office, only bringing in $10 Mil during its whole run. It was savaged by critics at the time, called "terminally unfunny" and "disgusting" and, well, for a certain sect I'm sure it was all those things. It has the blackest and black hearts at its core and is willing to put its characters through the ringer, not only emotionally but also quite violently. And yet, though it all, it's also somehow sunny and hilarious. It knows exactly what it wants to be and it achieves it, through and through. It just wasn't a movie that was going to win over hearts and minds during its theatrical run.
But it did find its audience, eventually, on home video. It has a brief run from Warner Bros. DVD (back when they had those cardboard-and-plastic "flapcases") and then drifted into obscurity, passed around by people who had managed to grab a DVD or recorded the film from cable. Over time its cult status grew, becoming a favorite among its many ardent fans. It's inspired drag shows and music videos. It's a constant favorite among the teen sect, one generation to the next. It's a dark little movie that really was meant to be discovered by the faithful and cherished by fans. Those who have seen it know its charms. You just have to be ready for a film that never shies away from going dark.
Set in "peaceful" Mount Rose, Minnesota, the film follows a mockumentary style as a group of 17-year-old girls get ready to perform in their local Sarah Rose Cosmetics Beauty Pageant. A win in the pageant would send one lucky girl to State, and then Nationals, all for a chance at a scholarship, along with other prizes. For small-town hopeful Amber Atkins (Kirsten Dunst) this is a chance to get out of Mount Rose, to get a degree and follow in the footsteps of her hero, Diane Sawyer. This is the goal she's worked towards, with the support of her mother, Annette (Ellen Barkin), and her mom's friend (and effective "aunt"), Loretta (Allison Janney).
There are other girls in the pageant as well -- Lisa Swenson (Brittany Murphy), who adores her brother, the drag queen living in New York; party girl cheerleader Leslie Miller (Amy Adams); queen of the school Tammy Curry (Brooke Elise Bushman); and others -- but its Becky Leeman (Denise Richards) who poses the biggest threat. Becky is the daughter of the richest family in town, and her mother, Gladys (Kirstie Alley), is also in charge of the pageant. Gladys wants her daughter to win so she can relive her own time in the pageant and see one of the Leemans finally go on to State... and she's willing to put her thumb on the scale has hard as she has to in the name of making it happen. Let no one get in her way.
The magic of Drop Dead Gorgeous is that it lets no possible joke ever go by without taking the opportunity. It uses the mockumentary style so it can grab "slice of life" and off the cuff moments with the characters, showing them as they "really are". It sets itself in a small town so it can riff on "those silly Midwesterners", from their accents, to their attitudes, to the way small town life works. And then it starts racking up a body count so that it can poke as many jokes as it wants at death, dismemberment, and horror, all with a big, Vaseline-coated smile.
It really leaves no stone unturned when it comes to its humor. One of the judges of the pageant, John Dough (Matt Malloy), is the local pharmacist and closet pedophile, a subject the film lets him rattle on about, again and again, as he digs himself deeper and deeper. Another judge, Harold Vilmes (Mike McShane), runs the local hardware store while he takes care of his brother, Hank (Will Sasso). Hank is mentally challenged, and the movie makes no bones about that. He's a bright and sunny person, so while the humor feels in bad taste it very rare that the film actually makes Hank the butt of the joke.
That is, in fact, a winning part of the film: those who are sweet and kind and generally nice might have a lot of darkness happen around them but they're never the butts of the jokes. The villains, though, are often derided and mocked by the film (if not the other characters) and there's always a solid comeuppance for them by the time the film reaches is nasty little conclusion. It's odd, really, because as much as this film is designed to mock Midwesterners, and beauty pageants in general, it has a sweetness to it that makes you realizes it cherishes the very things it's also ruthlessly mocking. It can, in fact, have it both ways and make it work.
It's unrelenting, though, in its sadistic glee. Within minutes of the film starting, and us just beginning to learn the characters, people start dying. A girl blows up on a thresher. A guy gets shot in the head while hunting. Both times the cops say, "ah, yeah, well, after careful examination, it was clearly an accident." Whether this is just negligence or them being bought off isn't made entirely clear, but foul play is evident from the start. People get hit in the head, shot at, blown up, and put through the ringer, and time and again the film finds ways to present this all with dark glee. It revels in it, enjoying the chaos it's created... and it's really funny because of it. Awkward and uncomfortable, but really funny.
It helps that it has an absolutely winning cast of actors all committed to the bit. Kirsten Dunst was only 17 when she played Amber in this film (the same age as her character) and she has this role down, in and out. Ellen Barkin and (the always phenomenal) Allison Janney comedically slay as her family. Kirstie Alley put such demented glee into her role that she steals most of the scenes that she was in. Credit has to go to Denise Richards, who was often derided for her performances during this era, but she brought the right kind of malevolence to her role. The casting, for all its characters, was perfect. It would just take time for the viewing public to realize it.
It is true that this film is not for everyone. It's crass, at times gross, and it's very dark. Unrelenting is a word I use often to describe it, but I don't think that's a flaw; that's part of its charms. It has a target and it goes for it, whole hog, never once letting up. For those that can enjoy this darkest of dark humor, this leads to a incredibly funny movie that has you laughing the whole time... but you have to be the kind of person that would enjoy it. When the film came out, critics were not of that camp, but thankfully audiences has steadily come around to it over the years.
The film is finally back on streaming services, and it has a newer home video release as well as the demands of the fans finally got it released from the vault it was buried in for years. Thus, if you haven't seen Drop Dead Gorgeous, and are up for a dark and hilarious time, this is the film to watch. It's really worth it.