A second review requested by Gabe P, with thanks for contributing twice to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

The hook of the dark comedy Drop Dead Gorgeous is that contestants at a small-town beauty pageant are being killed off, which isn't quite what it's about, actually. Some contestants are killed; more are not. I concede that this disappointed me a bit more than was reasonably fair, for what we're left with is still an effectively black-hearted satire from the last great era of sharp-tongued nasty comedy, around the end of the '90s and beginning of the '00s (Drop Dead Gorgeous was released in 1999). There are problems within the film, undoubtedly, but pulling its punches isn't one of them.

The blunt viciousness of the film's sarcasm is almost immediately obvious: it starts by trumping up the impending Sarah Rose Cosmetics American Teen Princess Pageant, a name that's just sufficiently awful to believe that somebody would absolutely cram all those nouns into one string. From here, writer Lona Williams and director Michael Patrick Jann (who'd cut his comedy teeth with the legendary '90s TV sketch comedy The State and has since returned to television's bosom - Drop Dead Gorgeous is his only feature film) shape their material into a mockumentary, a choice that would seem cloying and obvious just a few years later, but was still quite a crafty way to go in '99. And beauty pageants are the exact kind of subject matter for which the mockumentary form is best-suited.

This particular beauty pageant is the branch of the American Teen Princess Pageant that takes place in Mount Rose, Minnesota, under the guiding hand of 1978 winner Gladys Leeman (Kirstie Alley), the wife of the richest man in town. In 1995, Leeman's own daughter Becky (Denise Richards) is exactly the right age to compete herself, but she's one of several contestants the film watches: some of the others include sexed-up Leslie Miller (Amy Adams, in her first film), deaf advocate Jenelle Betz (Sarah Stewart), and other bubbly, goofy figures, but the one who clearly matters the most is Amber Atkins (Kirsten Dunst), who dreams of using a pageant victory as a launchpad for a career in broadcast journalism. Living in a trailer with her alcoholic mother Annette (Ellen Barkin, under-used) and even more alcoholic family friend Loretta (Allison Janney), the upbeat, earnest Amber is the polar opposite of the languid, spoiled Becky, and the film is structured largely around their unspoken but increasingly hostile rivalry, while a grand total of two of their fellow contestants are killed during the course of pageant season. But even just two is enough to thoroughly rattle Amber, who figures out that she was, in fact, the target of the second attack.

I have generally mixed feelings towards the film on the whole, but there is one aspect of it that I adore with all my heart: Dunst is fucking wonderful in the third-billed role that's nevertheless clearly the lead. Everybody in the movie other than Richards has trotted out their most colorful Upper Midwestern accent - it wouldn't be exaggerating an inch to suggest that Drop Dead Gorgeous is a deliberate Fargo knock-off (and I believe, the only one that exists), right down to Kristin Rudrüd, Jean Lundegaard herself, in a small but greatly memorable absurd cameo - and this is mostly comes from a place of broad, snarky comedy, not against Minnesotans themselves, necessarily, but against the vindictive politicking of small American rural towns that the Minnesota accent so vividly evokes. Dunst is the solitary exception: her performance, at odds to everything else in the film, is sincere and humane, finding the guileless enthusiasm and striving ambition that comes from being smart and poor in a small community, and choosing to combat that with optimism rather than resentment. And she funnels all that through the lilting singsong of her accent, transforming it from a joke into a source of inner steel and hope. A film as savage in its outlook as Drop Dead Gorgeous constantly runs the risk of being too sour for its own good; there are filmmakers throughout history (Billy Wilder races to mind) who could make great art from smug cynicism and acidic satire, but it takes a very deft touch to make that funny and not rancid, and Jann doesn't always prove that he has that touch. The central presence of Dunst as a completely likable, sympathetic, aspirational figure is thus vital for the film to stay above water.

Which isn't to say she stays above the film's cruelty (she doesn't: she has a few cutting, self-centered lines, and a scene where she literally dances around a corpse), nor that there's nobody else in the movie who is mostly or completely enjoyable: Adams is excellent, bring such a lack of shame or frailty to her "town whore" role that she completely knocks that stock type on its side, and Janney goes so far beyond merely redeeming a one-joke character into the bizarre hero of her own very different film that it no longer feels like a supporting comic performance, it's more like watching reality warp a little bit around her.

Which is to say: there's a lot of greatness within the film, and its deeply hostile critical reception in 1999 is thoroughly unearned. At the same time, there's a lot of flatness and misjudged humor in the film, also, and that reception is completely understandable. Drop Dead Gorgeous is an extraordinarily mean film, sometimes to its definite benefit, given the sense of dangerous, unpredictable comedy that emerges. More often, it's not so much to the film's benefit at all: more often, the meanness isn't shocking and bracing and hilarious, it's just, well, mean. The two clear points at which the film simply goes too far for even fun bad taste to excuse it are its depiction of the Japanese adoptive parents of contestant Molly Howard (Tara Redepenning), a sudden and swift injection of cringe-inducing Engrish minstrelsy, and the treatment of Mary Johanson (Alexandra Holden), the previous year's winner, suffering from anorexia. There's a line between "making fun of the poisonous culture of negative body imagery inherent to beauty pageants" and "making fun of the dangerously ill", and the film's depiction of Mary shoots past that line without even noticing it was there.

Those are extreme examples, but it's not uncommon at all for the film to commit so hard to its sardonic mockery that it flattens: not into something acutely unpleasant, necessarily, but frequently into something where the jokes are being stomped to the curb. Alley's performance, for example, is technically great and psychologically acute; but it's not really funny except in patches. One running gag about a pageant judge who's also a chickenhawk sputters no matter how hard the poor actor saddled with the role, Matt Malloy, tries to give it some pep. Another running gag about people who think they're on the show Cops is justified solely because it has a great payoff, and not because the initial set-up is anything other than musty and desperate.

As will happen to films with really distinctive personalities that were shamed by critics and ignored by audiences the first time around, Drop Dead Gorgeous has acquired for itself quite a sturdy cult in the years since it premiered, and I can absolutely see why. The acting is generally sharp, there are a good number of quotable lines and unexpected moments, and its manipulation of mockumentary aesthetics is more thoughtful and persuasive than anything done by Christopher Guest and his coterie in the same form (that said, Guest's films are more lively and funny, which makes up for it). I simply can't join them in their appreciation. It's simply too caustic to be as funny as it easily should be with this scenario and in some cases these exact lines of dialogue; it's too angry at its characters to be fully incisive. But the highlights, even granting that, are terrific; Drop Dead Gorgeous is a hard film to love, but it deserved better than being tossed out with the garbage.