Movie #171 2021: Drop Dead Gorgeous (1999)

Looking at the cast list for this movie, you wouldn’t think it was attached to a kind of niche, cult film. Kirsten Dunst. Allison Janney. Brittany Murphy. There are some big names here, and it’s not just limited to those three. But holy crap, Drop Dead Gorgeous was so ahead of its time.

Shot in a faux-documentary format, the film’s premise involves a group of young girls in a small Minnesota town who are competing to win their most prestigious beauty pageant. Former winner Gladys Leeman (Kirstie Alley) is the pageant’s host and the mother of one of the entrants, and it seems she’ll do anything in order for her daughter to win over the preppy Amber Atkins (Dunst). Meanwhile, a series of strange deaths begin to occur across the town, though local police – hilariously – don’t believe anything suspicious is going on behind the scenes.

Watch Drop Dead Gorgeous | Prime Video

Would The Office or Parks & Recreation even exist without Drop Dead Gorgeous? I mean… probably. But director Michael Patrick Jann seems to have perfected the format of the documentary comedy way back in 1999. It was ahead of its time for sure, which makes it quite a surprise that Jann has not directed any other feature films since. (His later credits are saturated with television directing credits though, so don’t worry, his talent has not been lost to the nineties.)

So much of the satire is so well done here that it would be easy to miss a lot of the jokes. I’m not saying every joke lands particularly well as there are some that are clearly better than others, but the concept of poking fun at “the All American beauty pageant” will never not be funny. And why is everything so much more hilarious in a Minnesota accent?! More please.

Drop Dead Gorgeous at 20: how dark pageant comedy works better in 2019 |  Comedy films | The Guardian

I would be remiss if I reviewed this movie and didn’t mention the amazing cast. A young Amy Adams in her first movie role and teen-actress-of-the-moment Kirsten Dunst show star quality in spades and Kirstie Alley is so good as the overbearing pageant Mom. However, Allison Janney is evidently the star of the show; the fact that she can go from C. J. Cregg to Loretta (her character in this film) should have been an early sign that it was only a matter of time before she won an Oscar and every scene was only improved by her presence. Most delightfully, Janney has been quoted saying that she gets more fans of this movie stopping her in the street than fans of The West Wing, which just proves how iconic her performance is here. (For the record though, this is not on par with The West Wing.)

Though the plot isn’t exactly mind blowing, again, the film’s critique of pageant culture is brilliant in exposing its absurdity. Some of the gags here work even better purely because they’re rooted in truth. Pairing all of that with a murderous backstory ensured that it was never boring too. In fact, at 98 minutes, it’s the perfect length for a movie in my opinion.

If you read reviews of Drop Dead Gorgeous from the time of release, most say that its overt, unsubtle satire just wasn’t funny. However, I say it was ahead of its time – so much of this is probably funnier now than it was even then. Easily a cult classic. Not to be missed.

Drop Dead Gorgeous is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video in the UK.

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