First Runner-Up

Movies to girls: Drop dead. Amber Atkins (Kirsten Dunst) tries for the tiara.

The way some girls see it, you can either be Scarlett or you can be Dorothy. With a few exceptions, National Junior Miss finalists this year named Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz their favorite films, testifying less to Victor Fleming's way with the ladies (he directed both films in 1939) than to the sad fact that to some, cinema's feminine possibilities remain defined by the ambitious belle and the homebound heroine. When it comes to beauty pageants, the irreverent mockumentary Drop Dead Gorgeous shares the satirical sensibility of those famous 1968 "bra-burners" who protested the Miss America pageant by crowning a sheep. But even though the movie's jaded makers pretend not to give a damn, they ultimately throw in their lot with the sentimental missies onstage, casting the film's hometown honey in Dorothy's worn-out slippers.

At its snort-provoking best, this faux-documentary mirrors Todd Haynes's contraband cult classic Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, which featured Barbie dolls and satirized Nixon-era adolescent celebrity to tragic perfection. Drop Dead Gorgeous, indeed. À la Haynes or a diluted John Waters, writer Lona Williams (see Outtakes, "Killing With Kindness") and first-time director Michael Patrick Jann parody wholesome Midwestern femininity by situating a cadre of Minnesota teen-princess contestants in eating disorders clinics, at rifle ranges, atop detonating tractors, inside exploding trailer homes, and astride gas-soaked parade floats. The competition pits saccharine furniture heiress Becky Leeman (Denise Richards) and her pageant-promoting mother Gladys (Kirstie Alley) against mortuary makeup artist Amber Atkins (Kirsten Dunst), her burned-out mother Annette (Ellen Barkin), and her mother's feisty, sex-starved neighbor Loretta (Allison Janney). The teens' aerobic fitness, talent, patriotic fervor, and poise (read: measurements) will be judged by pedophile and pharmacist John Dough (Matt Malloy), gas huffer and penis dangler Hank Vilmes (Will Sasso), and shell-shocked feminist Jean Kangas (Lona Williams).

As befits the film's much-publicized Minnesota setting and its characters' garishly protracted accents, Drop Dead Gorgeous displays local color that includes Lutheran jokes, lefse and lutefisk lingo, a Mall of America mention, hockey references, and distinctive ham sandwiches that I could swear were left over from my grandfather's funeral. But DDG (as insider locals proudly call it) perhaps owes less to Sinclair Lewis, Garrison Keillor, or the Coen Brothers than to movie-of-the-week sensationalism, Michael Moore-style exposé, and Naomi Wolf-ish feminism. Seeing that Southern queens dominate the Junior Miss pageant these days (with that region supplying this year's three trophy winners, and seven of twelve finalists), and that the contest originated in Alabama, our state's distinctive claim to pageant pathology seems slim. Unless, that is, you recall 1948's meaty Miss America, BeBe Shopp, the Hopkins queen who advocated milk and nourishing food in lieu of falsies, whose father blamed foreign socialists for tarnishing her creamy rep, and whose hoop dress somehow suctioned her to the floor at the 1949 pageant. Life, in this case, surpasses art.

Following Citizen Ruth's footsteps, the comparatively apolitical Drop Dead Gorgeous features heroines who booze, smoke, swear, and screw without apology. The moral vision in fictional Mount Rose belongs to Annette and Loretta, who display class rage reminiscent of Roseanne and slutty pride worthy of Courtney Love. They're suckered by neither small-town pieties nor big-city glitz. On the other side of town, Alley's antihero models the superficial rectitude and manipulative greed of the truly petty bourgeoisie.

Problem is, putting women at the center of this class picture, while a refreshing antidote to 90210, makes pageant culture look like exclusively female trouble. In the end, Drop Dead Gorgeous pillories competitive, class-aspiring women at the expense of more apt targets, like the advertisers, chambers of commerce, and men's clubs who've been equal party to this racket all along. In the end, mommy dearest--not Wall Street or even Main Street--takes the blame for reproducing blind ambition and ruthless competition.

If this sounds suspiciously familiar, perhaps it's because another filmmaker, Michael Ritchie, paved this path 25 years ago. In 1975 Ritchie and writer Jerry Belson crafted Smile, an eerily similar swipe at beauty contests and small-town dynamics. Taking a tabloid-inspired turn in 1993, Ritchie skewered the insipid ambition of sociopathic suburban moms with HBO's Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom, a dubious feat duplicated by Gus Van Sant's To Die For two years later. But where Smile favored razorlike irony to dissect the cultural battle of the sexes, and found lecherous male citizens at the root of the trouble, Drop Dead Gorgeous wields an indiscriminate sledgehammer.

Hence Gorgeous quickly descends into caricatures of tacky trailer trash or sycophantic Japanese immigrants so eager to assimilate that they celebrate American atomic power. Gratuitous jokes and shock tactics (gasp! a pregnant teen smoking and drinking) trump otherwise acute humor. Credit for this razed-earth technique belongs to Jerry Springer, the Farrelly brothers (and their Dumb and Dumber brand of humor), the condescending cinema of cruelty that disdains the middlebrow (Welcome to the Dollhouse, In the Company of Men), and "indie" cinema's pseudo-subversive mystique.

Then again, the smiling good girl proves too powerful an icon for these somewhat-less-than-cynical filmmakers to resist. Dunst plays her pretty-in-pink character straight: Amber's dance number, for example, proves the tasteful exception to the other doubtful displays of talent that include animal calls, a mournful dramatic interpretation of Soylant Green, and a hilarious Amy Grant-style hymn to Jesus ("Can't Take My Eyes Off You"). And when bad shellfish leaves her competitors spewing their delicate guts out over the balconies of the airport Ho Jo, Amber gets her ticket out of state. Underdog sentimentality pushes us to hail this humble heroine, who goes over the rainbow and back.

Amber's undetermined fate suggests a more famous Minnesotan young miss, Judy Garland, whose adult home was ultimately a place of unhappy marriages, substance abuse, suicidal breakdowns, and a fatal drug overdose. But then only a wicked witch could find comedy in that.


Drop Dead Gorgeous starts Friday at area theaters.

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