DROP DEAD GORGEOUS (1999) is the most under-appreciated comedy movie of the 1990s. It is a note perfect mockumentary of a ridiculous small town beauty pageant, featuring great performances from actresses we don’t usually think of that way (Denise Richards and Kirstie Alley,) and from actresses that went on to excel (Allison Janney, Amy Adams). Even though it’s a movie about a small town mom murdering beauty pageant contestants filled with infantile jokes about masturbation,eating disorders, and getting hit in the crotch, even though it ends with a montage of beauty queens vomiting, DROP DEAD GORGEOUS is filled with subtle (sorta) details that make every joke in it better, like the dog sweaters worn by German Shepard obsessed contestant Jenelle Betz and the gross sweaty expressions on the face of contest judge John Dough when he watches “the young girls.”
Yet Roger Ebert didn’t like it, it has a 44 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, and I don’t know hardly anyone who’s seen it that I didn’t show it to. Maybe it’s because of who it stars, maybe it’s because the DVD has a pink cover and it looks like a “girl movie,” this flick doesn’t get enough recognition for being the on point wicked comedy that is. Don’t make that mistake! Allison Janney has said more people approach her about DROP DEAD GORGEOUS than about the West Wing. There’s a reason people! (That reason is that The West Wing a pretentious and boring. DEAL WITH IT).
This is a movie with some respect for its audience– the simple murder mystery/pageant fix plot is left to gather steam for a while before it is explicitly laid out for the viewer, and often the jokes in a scene are taking place in the background of a shot, or have nothing to do with the narration going on in that moment. Often while Kirsten Dunst is explaining some aspect of her pageant preparation, the background of the shot will contain Allison Janney ‘s promiscuous character aggressively flirting with a UPS man, or tossing shrimp into the mouth of a much younger waiter. Notice how that’s the first time I mentioned Kirsten Dunst? Thought she’s ostensibly the star, this is definitely an ensemble flick, and while her performance is fine, her character is just not interesting enough to stand up to Janney’s trailer park cougar, or the monomaniacal insanity of Denise Richards and Kirstie Alley’s characters.
That’s right, Denise Richards is REALLY GOOD in this movie. Of the innumerable fake Midwestern accents in this film, hers is the best, and the mincing fake way she says the things a good pageant winner would say (“I’d have good strong roots in a town like Mt. Rose, a solid Christian trunk, and long, leafy branches to provide shade for handicapped kids on a hot summer day.”) while simmering with suppressed rage and murder below the surface should be studied.
The way this film manages to capture the feeling of living in a small town while also being constantly over the top ridiculous is one of the best things about it. Background shots of people slopping that green jello ambrosia salad stuff onto foam plates at a funeral, a little interstitial scene of the mayor bitching about how shriners won’t change an outdated billboard outside of town– these are so dead on that you can accept a trailer park explosion that leaves a Miller High Life can fused to the hand of the explosion’s victim, who repeatedly still tries to drink out of it.
One thing I’ll say after watching it again last night, is that in some ways the movie’s 90’s origins do stick out in unpleasant ways to the modern viewer. Though all of the leads ( and most of the cast, really,) are women, this is a lily white movie, with almost no people of color in it all, which seems like a pretty serious oversight. The lone exception, the film’s asian family, is basically a walking lazy stereotype. It also has a fair bit of gay jokes—very tame ones, but there are a lot – and it uses the word “retard” unflinchingly and often, which I don’t think it would if it was made today. However, if we were gonna disqualify every 90s comedy for these sins we wouldn’t have any left (sad). So see this anyway. You will get some rough edges, but you will get a brilliant work of small town satire, great comedic acting, and you will laugh about a million times.