A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Drop Dead Gorgeous is a 1999 comedy about beauty pageants, a satirical and snide look at small-town life and American attitudes toward adolescent girls and their prospects in life. The cynical script paints an unattractive portrait of unsophisticated America, and of hypocrites who espouse Christian values, upright living, and the need to follow the rules while murdering and maiming anyone who poses an obstacle to their success. The humor is broad and the targets are of the fish-in-a-barrel variety. Language includes "f--k," "s--t," "whore," and "bitch." A salesman tells someone not to "Jew me down." Girls make out with high school boys and speak of hickeys, bite marks, and missing periods. A woman is maimed in an explosion; another dies in a fire, and a third dies on a burning thresher. A teen is killed by a bullet to the head. His body is seen, bloody forehead and all, in a funeral home. A girl practices at a shooting range, recalling that her mother gave her a Glock 9 mm gun for her birthday. The reigning local American Teen Princess is short of breath and losing her hair from her anorexia. A convict escapes from prison and becomes a mass shooter. A stuffed Jesus doll is attached to a large cross on wheels. Adults smoke cigarettes and drink alcohol. Teens drink alcohol from a brown paper bag.
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What's the story?
The seventeen-year-old girls who want to compete in the 50th Sarah Rose Cosmetics American Teen Princess regional contest long for the excitement and romanticism that winning promises. They hail from Mount Rose, Minnesota, the small-town backdrop of DROP DEAD GORGEOUS, where the girls are honing their skills in tap dance, dramatic monologue, dancing while signing for the deaf, and singing the praises of, and dancing with, a stuffed Jesus doll attached to a large cross on wheels. The story is told from the point of view of a documentary camera crew filming the regional run-up to the State and National competitions, the camera monitoring the in-fighting, the handicapping by townfolk, the speculation about payoffs, suspicious actions by judges, and, finally, mysterious deaths of competitors and their supporters -- ruled "accidental" by police who are clearly on the take. Gladys Leeman (Kirstie Alley) is the mom who herself was crowned American Teen Princess years back and now presides over the contest, a woman who has clearly bribed the judges and killed competitors to clear the way to victory for her polished but heartless daughter, Becky (the gleeful Denise Richards). The whole town knows that Amber Atkins (Kirsten Dunst) is the most talented and deserving among the contestants. She's the daughter of Annette, a trailer park drunk (played with relish by Ellen Barkin). Amber goes to school, practices dance, and works at the funeral home, cheerfully applying makeup to corpses. She's an underdog in life and in the contest, but she has the fervent support of her mom's pal, Loretta (Allison Janney), who escorts her everywhere after Gladys bombs Amber's trailer and sends Mom to the hospital with third degree burns and a beer can seared to her right hand. All bad guys, including the sponsors of the contest, receive their just desserts in the end.
Is it any good?
Drop Dead Gorgeous tries to emulate the cleverness of Christopher Guest mockumentaries (Best in Show, Waiting for Guffman, A Mighty Wind) but misses the mark. Despite great performances by Dunst as a hard-working innocent and the magnificent Janney playing the good-hearted version of the low-life mother she later perfected in I, Tonya, too often this feels strained and cliched. It's clear the filmmakers disapprove of pageants and the way such competitions compare women's attributes as if they were prize cattle, but the script seems as dopey as, and far crueler than, the kind of people it mocks. When a Lutheran woman nearly runs down a priest, she suggests he's probably drunk, having tippled too much sacred Holy Communion wine. The mom who is a former winner of the contest herself uses her wealth and influence to buy and murder her way to her daughter's present-day triumph. That her daughter meets with a terrible end seems proper comeuppance, but this comes by way of cheap jokes about Mexican craftsmanship and how easy it is to bribe anyone dumb enough to accept tacos rather than money. Not that such bigoted, vile, and caricature-able people don't exist, but the notion that small towners are all either gun-toting trailer park "trash," or wealthy hypocritical ignoramuses seems more than biased, and downright offensive.
It's not exactly news that beauty pageants exploit and objectify women, and it wasn't news in 1999 when the movie was made, either. Like Romy and Michele's High School Reunion, the focus is on mocking the uneducated and the ignorant, but at least that movie acknowledges that decent and intelligent people also inhabit the world.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about whether beauty contests are helpful to women who have few opportunities in their lives, or exploitative and objectifying. What's your opinion?
Do you think beauty pageants emphasize the importance of female looks or simply reflect an obsession that already exists in everyday life? Why do you think there aren't any male beauty pageants?
What's the movie's point of view regarding the value of such contests? Who is it rooting for? How can you tell?
Do you think Amber has a chance to follow her dream because she participated in a pageant, or is she the kind of girl who will find her opportunity on her own?
- In theaters: July 23, 1999
- On DVD or streaming: June 28, 2016
- Cast: Kirsten Dunst, Allison Janney, Kirstie Alley, Denise Richards, Ellen Barkin, Amy Adams
- Director: Michael Patrick Jann
- Studio: Hulu
- Genre: Comedy
- Run time: 97 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG-13
- MPAA explanation: for irreverent and crude humor, sex-related material and language
- Last updated: October 1, 2020
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