Published July 1, 1999
Drop Dead Gorgeous, directed by Michael Patrick Jann, is intermittently quite funny, but ultimately doesn’t work because it is offensively patronizing to the people of small-town Minnesota whom it sees through the eyes of New York or Los Angeles—or some even more fabulously sophisticated place. In this view of the American heartland, the people are all desperate to escape to some place nicer and fail to do so only because they are vicious cretins whom no place else would want. Some boys get out by going to prison or joining the army; girls must rely on the Miss American Teen Princess contest, sponsored by Sarah Rose Cosmetics of Lincoln, Alabama, whose tackiness and cheesiness is exceeded only by the ruthlessness with which the girls and their mothers plot to win it.
Not that teen beauty contests do not deserve a good deal of the rough going-over they are apparently meant to get from this movie. If it were just the story of the rivalry between Becky Leeman (Denise Richards) and Amber Atkins (Kirsten Dunst) and their very different but equally hideous mothers (Kirstie Alley and Ellen Barkin respectively) set in some kind of vaguely believable context, the movie might have succeeded in its putatively satirical purpose. But everybody in the town of Mount Rose, Minnesota, except for Amber and her mother’s friend Loretta (Allison Janney), is so awful that we must share the contestants’ desire to get out of the place—which blunts the satirical thrusts ostensibly directed at the tawdriness of the girls’ ambitions.
Amber, for instance, introduces herself to us by talking about the two women she most admires in the world: her mom (a drunk and a slattern) and Diane Sawyer. It’s a funny idea, suggestive of the links between the cheap glamour of the media and the suckers who are its main consumers. But Amber is the sympathetic one, particularly by contrast with the evil and hypocritical Becky whose mom, herself a former victor in Mount Rose’s Miss American Teen Princess pageant, always tells her that “Jesus loves a winner” and who is willing to kill to be one herself. Thus when Amber in the end gets her foot on the ladder of media success, it is hard to see that success otherwise than as the glorious thing it is for her. What, then, are we meant to suppose is wrong with her admiring Diane Sawyer or any other celebrity from the television?
In this way, the movie is always undermining itself, particularly in the case of the Miss American Teen Princess contest itself. By making everything in Mount Rose equally nasty, stupid and tasteless, it makes the contest look, if not genuinely glamorous, almost reasonable and sensible by comparison. It becomes, in short, a serious proposition. For why do we laugh at these girls for their bad taste and bad values if these are, in fact, the only avenues of escape from even worse taste and worse values? As is so often the case in Hollywood satires, Drop Dead Gorgeous draws back from moral censure to adopt the view of the world that it originally set out to satirize. It is a shame because, until it bogs down in the lavishness of its own overstatement, it promises to be a very funny picture.