Drop Dead Gorgeous - * * 1/2*

Drop Dead Gorgeous is a biting and, at times, cruel satire of beauty pageants and the small-town mentality. Written by former pageant contestant Lona Williams, this comedy has the ring of truth, but it tends to go a bit too far.

Drop Dead Gorgeous is filmed in a mock-documentary style, following the path of the Miss Teen Princess America beauty pageant from small town Mount Rose, Minnesota, all the way to the nationals. The local favorite in Mount Rose is Becky Leeman (Denise Richards), a young beauty whose mother, Gladys (Kirstie Alley), just happens to be chairwoman of the pageant, and a former winner herself.

But Becky has some stiff competition in the small town. Her chief rival seems to be the wholesome Amber Atkins (Kirsten Dunst). Amber lives in the local trailer park with her alcoholic mom (Ellen Barkin), and holds down several jobs, including cafeteria lady, and makeup artist at the morgue.

It soon becomes obvious that little is going to stand in Becky’s way in her quest to be crowned. Other contestants suffer mysterious fates when they dare cross her path. As the pageant draws near, Amber comes to the conclusion that she won’t survive long enough to win the crown.

At first, Drop Dead Gorgeous simply seems like a small town satire in the vein of Waiting for Guffman (with a heavy dose of Fargo-esque Minnesotan humor). However, things quickly turn darker when the first deaths start rolling around. The humor gets blacker and blacker, and flirts dangerously with the boundaries of meanness.

Kirsten Dunst is sympathetic and appealing as the underdog character whom audiences are urged to root for. Denise Richards plays the spoiled little rich girl perfectly, and Kirstie Alley gets to flash her sharp teeth as her obsessive mother. However, Ellen Barkin is wasted as Ambers’ shadow of a mother. Mindy Sterling steals the few brief scenes she’s in as one of Gladys Leeman’s cronies.

Unfortunately, the film loses its momentum once it progresses to the State and National rounds. So much effort was spent getting comfortable with the characters and contestants of Mount Rose, that the latter pageant scenes just can’t compare. Except for the Mount Rose winner, there’s no one of any interest in the latter part of the film.

The regional humor is laid on thick and heavy. Minnesotans (and Lutherans) are unlikely to be happy with their backwards portrayal in the film. But it is obvious from the outset, the film is not hoping to win any friends. Picking easy targets, such as the mentally and physically disabled, Drop Dead Gorgeous mercilessly flaunts its politically incorrect label.

When it’s funny, it’s wickedly funny. There are times the film borders on being just plain mean, though. Still, in the end, the funny bits win out.

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