Drop Dead Gorgeous

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.

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