Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (October 12, 2020)
On the rare occasions that Hollywood produces movies related to beauty pageants, they usually veer toward comedy. With 1999’s Drop Dead Gorgeous, we get a film in that vein, albeit on the darker side.
Set in tiny Mount Rose, Minnesota, the locals gear up for its annual beauty contest, the awkwardly titled “Sarah Rose Cosmetics American Teen Princess Pageant”. Underprivileged teen Amber Atkins (Kirsten Dunst) competes in this event.
However, former winner Gladys Leeman (Kirstie Alley) feels determined to pass the baton to her daughter Becky (Denise Richards). It appears Gladys will literally stop at nothing to secure a victory for Becky, so Amber and the others find their lives threatened.
Gorgeous hit DVD about a year after yours truly began his career as Review Boy here. However, yours truly never wrote up the film.
Why not? Yours truly can’t recall, and yours truly doesn’t even really remember that he saw the movie at all.
Did yours truly miss anything over the last 21 years? Not really, as the movie comes with occasional glimmers of wit but doesn’t tend to hit the mark.
Probably inspired by the recent semi-success of 1997’s Waiting For Guffman, Gorgeous gives us a “mockumentary”. Unlike Guffman and other Christopher Guest flicks, though, Gorgeous comes as a fully scripted affair.
Whereas the Guest films offer largely improvised tales, Gorgeous stays with its screenplay, and this makes a difference. The Guest movies boast a looseness that fails to appear here, as Gorgeous seems more contrived and less dynamic.
Whereas comedy in the 80s tended to favor big, wacky broadness, the 90s took humor down a much darker path. This meant efforts that opted for a cold, edgy style that flirted with the boundaries of good taste.
Seinfeld exemplified this trend in that it avoided sympathetic characters and reveled in bad behavior. However, the series understood that a certain line existed, and it rarely crossed that boundary.
Like 1998’s Very Bad Things, though, Gorgeous mistakes offensive content for comedy. The film attempts to churn laughs from such “hilarious” topics as mentally disabled people and a girl literally dying from anorexia.
While I won’t claim the film comes with no amusement at all, it squanders most of its ample potential. The beauty pageant setting comes with plenty of chances for mirth, and when we throw in the murderous subplot, the movie boasts great opportunity to succeed.
Alas, Gorgeous rarely capitalizes on these chances, as its crudeness undercuts its possibilities. I’m fine with darker humor, but it needs some sense of intelligence and meaning, whereas Gorgeous simply seems to believe that nastiness equals cleverness.
We do find a surprisingly strong cast from Gorgeous. In addition to Alley, Dunst and Richards, we get a slew of notables such as Ellen Barkin, Allison Janney, Mindy Sterling, Brittany Murphy, among others. Heck, we even see Amy Adams in her film debut!
That’s a high-powered pack of actors, but most fail to connect to the film, mainly because most don’t enjoy great talent for comedy. Not that performers like Dunst, Barkin and Adams flop in these kinds of roles, but as implied earlier, Gorgeous would benefit from the kind of more experienced comedic actors found in the Guest movies.
I think this cast could succeed in a comedy that went with a less broad, satirical bent, but the style featured in Gorgeous needs a different caliber of actor. While we do find a few performers who fit the movie – like Sterling and Murphy – most just seem a bit out of place.
It doesn’t help that the actors who play the pageant contestants are all over the map in terms of age. Dunst may be the only one actually 17 at the time, as most of her co-stars were in their 20s.
Heck, Richards was 28 years old for Gorgeous! It seems wacky that she’d play a nuclear scientist in The World Is Not Enough the same year as Gorgeous. (Footnote: nuclear scientists aren’t 17 years old.)
Though interesting in concept, Gorgeous largely fails in execution. Mean-spirited and ugly too much of the time, the movie squanders a good cast and a clever premise.