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Things get pretty ugly in the darkly comic "Drop Dead Gorgeous." 

Missed Congeniality

It's never a good sign when the best aspect of a satire is that it makes you recall other better, funnier, more perverse movies. Which is the case with the new-faux riche expose of small-town beauty pageants, "Drop Dead Gorgeous." Not that this darkly comic look behind-the-scenes doesn't have some drop-dead funny lines; it certainly does. But the filmmakers' approach to their subject matter is lazy, as if the premise and setting were humorous enough.

Cut from the same cloth as Michael Ritchie's "Smile" and the evil fun of "The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom," but transplanted to the "You betchas" heartland of "Fargo," "Drop Dead Gorgeous" never quite goes for the jugular. Even at its darkest, the satire seems to be holding back, afraid to offend us. And in these cinematic times, a parody that pulls its punches doesn't win the crown.

Beauty pageants are ripe for ridicule, and as we soon see, none is quite as ridiculous as Mount Rose, Minn.'s, "The Sarah Rose Miss Teen Princess America Pageant." A tradition intended to celebrate civic pride and engender teen camaraderie, this hallowed annual event has become a "do-or-die" contest between the mothers of two contestants.

Meet front-runner Becky Leeman (Denise Richards), a spoiled little rich girl with the misfortune of having been born to former pageant winner Kirstie Alley. Determined that her daughter will follow in her teen-queen pumps, Mama Leeman isn't afraid to resort to a little treachery to eliminate the competition.

Becky's biggest threat is sweet-natured Amber Atkins (Kirsten Dunst), who dreams of becoming the next Diane Sawyer. But like Becky, Amber's biggest handicap is her mom, the chain-smoking, trailer-park living Ellen Barkin.

The two contestants — and their mothers — could not be more different. While Becky enjoys being Lutheran Gun Club vice president, Amber divides her spare time between tap-dancing and practicing cosmetology on the cadavers at the local funeral parlor.

We discover all these intimate details via a documentary film crew which has come to Mount Rose to capture the heart and heartache of small-town dreams on display in that most-hallowed American tradition — the beauty pageant. The film crew following the girls wants to know what it takes to become Miss Teen Princess America. The shocking answer: a helluva lot more than they bargained for.

Before they know it, their cameras are documenting some very mysterious and very lethal coincidences. Hmmm. Why did that klieg light fall directly on one poor girl's head as she was rehearsing her interpretative sign language number? How did one contestant come to die in a bizarre threshing-machine accident? And why did Amber's trailer burst into flames in the middle of the night?

The tension — and bodies — mount as pageant night approaches. We watch as the ever-dwindling pool of contestants goes through their tacky-glam paces. Things really heat up during the talent eliminations. Tap-dancing Amy emerges as the clear winner over Becky's devotional dance with a life-size Christ on the crucifix. But for some reason, first-time director Michael Patrick Jann and screenwriter Lona Williams (a co-producer of "The Drew Carey Show") don't let this broad but funny set-piece end their movie. Instead, the movie sputters along, allowing Alley's foiled Mama an evil curtain speech and follows one character down the national contest runway.

Other than Dunst's Amber, "Drop Dead Gorgeous" is peopled with regional stereotypes, which wears thin quickly. While I laughed out loud at the town's welcome sign which proudly boasts being home to the "World's Oldest Living Lutheran," most of the jokes are of the cow-tipping, racist-talking, pass-the-white-bread-and-mayo-please, local yokel type. While writer Williams (apparently a former pageant contestant herself) manages to slip in a few sly digs and gags, most of the comedy falls flat. The acting is passable, but not memorable.

Watching "Drop Dead Gorgeous" made me wish the filmmakers had modeled their movie more on the sweet-natured "Waiting For Guffman." Although that movie certainly presented audiences with regional yokel-types, it also celebrated them. That's what's missing here — congeniality. Though the satire is often biting and its tone is deliciously irreverent, "Drop Dead Gorgeous" just doesn't have the killer script or lethal-laced performances to make it a
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