Drop Dead Gorgeous, which employs both methods, wants to be social satire that's bloody in fang and claw. Better duck, small-town hypocrisy! Take that, crude ambition! But it's a clumsy effort, and previous attackers have already inflicted so many bullet holes and puncture wounds on its targets that there's very little damage left to be done.
Clichés and condescension be damned, these moviemakers press on. Screenwriter Lona Williams, an ex-Minnesotan who once entered a Junior Miss pageant, and rookie director Michael Patrick Jann, a prime mover behind the MTV comedy series The State, have a gift for the casual detail ("Go Muskies!" a local cheerleader cries, then scrunches her mouth into fish lips) and the throwaway one-liner ("You won't find a back room in our video store," a town booster brags). But Drop Dead Gorgeous is more mean-spirited than liberating. It could take a few lessons in bad behavior from the South Park gang.
The setting is hopelessly out-of-it Mount Rose, Minnesota (pop. 5,076), where every stretch of talk is peppered with "Yah, you betcha," the Twin Cities are regarded as Sodom and Gomorrah, and the amusing rustics have nothing better to do than put their benighted daughters through something called the Sarah Rose Miss Teen Princess America Pageant. The contest has attracted the wallflower with a talent for assorted dog barks and the would-be actress who can't decide whether to do a dramatic reading from Othello or the half-forgotten sci-fi flick Soylent Green. But the real contenders are the cloying rich girl Becky Leeman (Denise Richards), propped up by her malevolent mother, Gladys (Kirstie Alley), and the tap-dancing, trailer-park beauty Amber Atkins (Kirsten Dunst), whose slatternly mom, Annette (Ellen Barkin), subsists on beer and cigarettes.
Here's news: The pageant incites a teen vixen war and brings out the worst in the local townsfolk. The bitching, bickering, and backbiting are captured by the movie's bogus documentary film crew, which barges into living rooms and dressing rooms in the name of giving us mock-intimate glimpses of full-throttle Midwestern piety and pretension.
In the meantime, the moviemakers lay on a raft of details meant to remind us that we're deep in the realms of irony and black humor. Amber's after-school job is doing hair and makeup on the stiffs at the local mortuary. Last year's pageant winner is now confined to a wheelchair, wasting away from anorexia. And because this is Minnesota or Hollywood's smug view of Minnesota one teen beauty is eliminated from contention when her thresher blows up in a wheat field.
Sardonically oriented members of the audience are bound to get the occasional yuk from such stuff. But it's got all the subtlety of a sledgehammer, and Gorgeous doesn't measure up very well to the competition. The best teen satire of the year, Alexander Payne's Election, is a beautifully barbed send-up of homegrown ambition set in another heartland capital, Omaha, Nebraska, and it has both the bite and the shading Jann's effort lacks. Michael Ritchie's Smile, made way back in 1975, remains a far funnier, more lethal lampoon of beauty pageants. And the Coen brothers' Fargo, which set the style for black comedy and the idiosyncrasies of language in the upper Midwest, won't be giving up the trophy for dead-on regional observation anytime soon.