Monday, January 28, 2013

Drop Dead Gorgeous (1999)

The Movie: 1995 was the 50th year of the American Teen Princess beauty pageant; and a television film crew was sent to the small town of Mount Rose, Minnesota, to cover it. However, as they discover, there’s a lot more going on. Just below the surface is a nasty web of intrigue centered around the two contestant favorites.

On the one hand we have Rebecca Leeman (Denise Richards of Starship Troopers); the spoiled daughter of Mount Rose’s richest family and, more importantly, of Gladys Leeman (Kirstie Alley), the pageant chairperson and former winner. On the other is Amber Atkins (Kirstin Dunst, last seen on this blog in Small Soldiers) a sweet, talented girl who works two jobs and lives in a trailer park with her single mother (Ellen Barkin). Most of the town backs Amber; but “somebody” (no prizes for guessing who) is determined that Rebecca will win. As the number of “mysterious” deaths and potentially fatal “accidents” grows; the question isn’t whether Amber will win, but whether she will live long enough to compete.

The Review:

Oh yeah. Guys get out of Mount Rose all the time on hockey scholarships... or prison."
-Amber Atkins

Happy 2013 dear readers! How are you getting on with your resolutions? My New Year’s resolution is to attempt to be more positive. It’s nowhere near as easy as everyone would have me believe it to be; but I have been blessed with some truly wonderful individuals in my life, so I have some hope that it is possible. However, my longtime readers need not worry; considering how little humanity has changed in the however many thousands of years since our ancestors first came down out of the trees and started forming society, it’s doubtful that the cynicism you have grown to know and love will be going anywhere. And that brings us to today’s review.

I got my VHS copy of Drop Dead Gorgeous off a friend in college who was selling some of his movies. Said friend is from Minnesota, and he told me that not only was the movie shot there (and that he was in a play with one of the extras), but that it portrays small-town Minnesota very accurately. Sadly, my own personal experience with Minnesota is mainly a large number of stopovers at the Minneapolis-Saint Paul airport. However, I noticed that the town of Mount Rose looked very familiar. Having lived in small, rural towns a large portion of my life, it’s my opinion that this film portrays rural, small-town America as a whole very accurately.

That is probably the make it or break it aspect of this movie’s humor for most audiences. While there are plenty of obvious jokes on display, much of the humor is only noticeable for those with a certain lifetime experience. If you have any real first-hand experience with rural small-town America (and probably small-town Minnesota especially, as I said, I wouldn’t know personally), you will likely spend much of the running time nodding in recognition; and if you have a sense of humor you’ll also be laughing. However, if you really aren’t familiar with that kind of community, there is much that will pass right under your radar.

In fact, if it weren’t for all the familiar faces and big-name actresses in the cast; it wouldn’t be too hard for me to believe that Drop Dead Gorgeous was a real documentary about a real town. Mount Rose, like all small communities, is the kind of place where everybody knows everybody else’s business to an uncomfortable degree; and isn’t afraid to make judgments on it. Just observing the characters interacting hints and insinuates at whole undercurrents of Mount Rose’s community that are never addressed directly by the movie itself. We are given a very definite picture of the town’s factions, of its most prominent views, and of how its citizens view one another.

As my longtime readers are well aware, my favorite part of almost any movie is the characters; and Drop Dead Gorgeous introduces us to all sorts of interesting, wonderfully quirky individuals. Just the pageant contestants are enough to scratch this itch; my two personal favorites are the dog enthusiast with her “lucky” bolt (it fell off an airplane and hit her in the head, but fortunately at an angle so that it didn’t pierce her skull), and the drama geek who does a monologue of Soylant Green for her talent. However, if you’re looking for familiar faces; Amy Adams makes her first film appearance as a slightly dim-witted cheerleader who is a bit blatantly… I think licentious is the word I’m looking for, while the late Brittney Murphy is wonderful as Lisa, a girl following in her older brother, Peter’s, footsteps. Peter left for New York to do Broadway; and considering that she shows us pictures of him dressed as Liza Minnelli, Madonna and Barbara Streisand, we can guess the main reason why he would have wanted to leave Mount Rose even before it’s spelled out for us in one of the movie’s better lines. Out of all the people we are introduced to, my personal favorite would have to be Allison Janney as Loretta; Mrs. Atkins’ best friend, and for all intents and purposes Amber’s second mother.

The thing that intrigues me most about Drop Dead Gorgeous these days is the true nature of the conflict between Amber and Rebecca. In it, we can see a microcosm of the top-down class warfare that has been plaguing this country since the Reagan years, if not further back. From the beginning it’s clear how uneven the footing between the two girls is. The Leemans are the richest people in Mount Rose; which in contemporary society makes them the “job providers” and the economic center of the town. As a result, they are able to dominate things almost completely. Loretta puts it very succinctly early on: “You're talking about the richest family in a small town. It's front page news when one of them takes a shit.” Because of their power and influence they are able to, quite literally, get away with murder.

The Leemans whole motive behind Rebecca competing is a sense of entitlement; they feel she deserves to win simply because of who she is. This is very obvious in all their behavior. Hell, Rebecca’s performance for the talent competition shows very clearly where the Leemens think they stand in the scheme of things. I’m not going to spoil it for you, it really has to be seen to be believed; all I’ll say is that I’m not a Christian and yet I still find it blasphemous.

As such, the Leemans have no qualms about using their influence to rig the pageant. And the sad part is everyone’s aware of it. From the beginning, nearly everyone interviewed states that Amber is the one who probably most deserves to win, but that Rebecca will win anyway because of who her family is. When we are introduced to the judges it’s clear that they were all handpicked by Mr. Leeman; hell, one of them is an employee in his store. On top of that, Mrs. Leeman is the pageant chairwoman.

Amber, on the other hand, is on the bottom rung of the social ladder. She’s the child of a single mother, and they live in a trailer park. Amber has to work two jobs on top of high school to help support the two of them. While she’s talented and has definite dreams, Amber is likely to end up like her mother if she doesn’t find a way out of Mount Rose. That’s where the pageant comes in, Amber needs to win it if she wants to make something of her life.

Dunst is wonderful as Amber; she’s always done sweet, cute and energetic very well. However, I couldn’t help but notice that Amber tends to get her breaks through other peoples’ misfortune. Admittedly, her first big break comes not through any actions of her own, but karma for the Leemans; and her third through simply being in the right place at the right time and being able to capitalize on it. Her second break, though; there’s a hint that she might not have played it as fair as we’ve been led to expect. Kind of makes you wonder if she’s really that sweet.

In conclusion, Drop Dead Gorgeous is hilarious, clever, and well put together; a witty and, at times, all too accurate look at small-town America.