July 30, 1999

At The Movies: Drop Dead Gorgeous

By Ted Anthony

Pity the rural upper Midwest. First it suffered through ``Fargo,'' with its mind-numbing snowstorms and its dead-end denizens talking in lampooned regional accents. Then Jesse Ventura got elected. And now comes ``Drop Dead Gorgeous,'' which gives Minnesotans yet another kick in the lutefisk.

Too bad. Like ``Fargo,'' ``Drop Dead Gorgeous'' is crackling, delicious and brilliant - and sends those same character traits, dead-on though they may be, right back into the American moviegoing zeitgeist for another tour of duty.

The highlight of the year in Mount Rose, Minn., is the Sarah Rose Miss Teen Princess Pageant, which plucks the flower of adolescent female humanity and takes her to better things - more contests and maybe a career in show business or modeling.

This particular year, 1995, the competition is stiff. Leading the pack: the smooth, articulate Becky Leeman (Denise Richards), the town rich girl, vice president of the Lutheran Sisterhood Gun Club and daughter of former queen Gladys Leeman (Kirstie Alley, doing her best Marge Gunderson accent), the self-styled queen of the village.

Running a close second is Amber Atkins (Kirsten Dunst), who wants to flee her trailer-park childhood and be a big-time anchorwoman like Diane Sawyer. Her mother Annette (Ellen Barkin) agrees; she doesn't want her daughter's after-school job, applying makeup at the local mortuary, to become a career. But Amber knows the odds she has to overcome, unlike the boys who make it out all the time ``for hockey scholarships or prison.''

The darker horses are a motley pack, girls of various shapes and sizes and talents. One, planning her routine, is undecided about her talent monologue - ``Othello'' or ``Soylent Green.'' And last year's winner? She's in the hospital being treated for anorexia, losing hair by the clump.

This is what a documentary crew finds when it arrives in Mount Rose. In fact, the entire movie is presented as a documentary, in much the same way as ``Waiting for Guffman,'' lending a reality-TV flavor that ideally serves the film's voyeuristic story-line.

But this is no ``America's Sweetest Beauty Queens.'' It's more like ``When Teens Attack,'' filmed in an American netherworld of liberally applied eyeliner and roughhewn ambition.

Bad things begin happening. One contestant is killed by an exploding thresher. A football star Becky likes asks Amber out by telling her she has lutefisk (pungent Scandinavian codfish) in her hair, and within hours he's dead in a hunting accident.

Then, as Amber becomes Becky's only real competition, the violence turns toward her. It's clear something has happening, and Amber suspects Becky. What follows, as the pageant nears, is a road to ruin. It's only a question of whose ruin we're talking about, and who is going to end up dead.

Mount Rose is one potboiler of a town, a true tempest in a very tiny teapot. Here, the beauty queen of a decade ago (Kristin Rudrud, the kidnapped wife in ``Fargo'') advertises pork products on TV. The pharmacist is a lurking, sweating pedophile. And if you grab someone by the tie in anger, it might well unclip and come off in your hand. Vague malevolence abounds, showcased dispassionately through the strategic jump cuts and editing choices of the ``documentary crew.''

Every resident - the mentally feeble and the infirm, the Jewish and the Asian - are all skewered. But the most ardent animus is saved for the majority of the town - the grotesquely normal, whose every pimple is fodder for close ``documentary'' scrutiny.

Virtually everyone in the predominantly female cast shines. Best of all is Allison Janney (``The Ice Storm,'' ``Celebrity'') as Loretta, An-nette Atkins' brassy, flirtatious best friend. She's a poor man's Mrs. Robinson, snapping gum and making time with men half her age, but standing behind Amber all the way.

Watching Mount Rose hurtle toward Contest Day is like watching a locomotive bear down on a 3-year-old, and when it's all over and Richards has danced with a stuffed Christ on a cross, you'll be drained. The winner, incidentally, gets a trip to the city and a night at a motel where the marquee says, ``Welcome American Teen Princess - Fried Clam Platter $9.99.''

Always dispassionate, never frantic, ``Drop Dead Gorgeous'' is merciless in its icy scrutiny of the very, very ordinary. And that makes it an extraordinary movie.

``Drop Dead Gorgeous,'' a New Line Cinema release, is directed by first-timer Michael Patric Jann from a script by Lona Williams. It is rated PG-13.

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