Based on the video/DVD package I thought this would be an airheaded, cutesy comedy about beauty pageants with maybe a little quasi-dark humor thrown in an attempt to add substance. What you actually get, I'm glad to say, is a biting indictment of small towns, beauty pageants, an adult community that tries to live vicariously through its children's achievements (for those who have read the book Friday Night Lights or seen the inferior movie on the subject, Varsity Blues, that theme is familiar), etc., etc. Many venemous darts fly out at numerous targets, and first-time director Michael Patrick Jann hits the mark most of the time.
The footage is all supposedly from the cameras of documentarians recording the fiftieth annual Miss Teen Princess pageant in Mount Rose, Minnesota. We first meet Gladys Leeman (Kirstie Alley, "Cheers"), the woman in charge of the pageant. We then meet the various competitors, including Leeman's own daughter Becky Ann (Denise Richards, Wild Things). Despite Gladys' protestations that she is only partial to her daughter inside the confines of their own home, and remains professionally detached without, evidence begins to mount that she would kill for her daughter to win. Suspicion also falls on Gladys' husband Lester (what is it with alliterative names in comedies, anyway?), played as a wiseguy-like, racist, misogynist jerk by Sam McMurray (Raising Arizona). The main heroine is Amber Atkins (the now-superstar Kirsten Dunst), an everygirl from the wrong side of the tracks who shares a trailer-park berth with her drunken mother Annette (Ellen Barkin, The Big Easy). Amber's tension mounts as bad things begin to happen to the people all around her, and as Becky's most serious competitor, she knows she's the chief target. I won't reveal any events beyond that, but I will say that the conclusion is not sappy or contrived, but I found it dark, humorous and satisfying all at the same time.
Let me address the bad and the ugly first; the performance by Denise Richards (as Becky Ann Leeman) qualifies as both, and warrants lowering my rating by one star just by itself. Most of the cast manages to nail the Minnesotan accent dead-on; Denise Richards doesn't even try. In a way that's good. It means we don't have to agonize through over an hour and a half of a botched accent (think Costner as Robin of Locksley). But it also comes off like a glaring admission that Richards has no talent, but is in fact hired for her measurements (a charged formerly levied at Jennifer Connelly, who seems like the next Dame Judi Dench compared to Richards). What is it about bad actors and actresses that makes them funny when they're not trying to be (Denise Richards in her Bond appearance), and not funny when they are? She has unconvincing delivery, no emotional range...she's not even funny as a ditz.
Kirstie Alley is a little better as Becky Ann's mother. Her accent seems a bit forced, and her performance is somewhat of the one-note variety, but unlike Richards, at least she can hit the note.
Just about everyone else is fantastic. Barkin is good and almost unrecognizable as Amber's lush of a mother, but Allison Janney steals the show as Annette's friend Loretta. Alexandra Holden is horrific as the anorexia-stricken winner from last year. Michael McShane draws laughs as one of the judges, but William Sasso draws more as his mentally challenged son.
Comedies often don't seem to work without the one sweet-natured innocent at their center, and that role is filled (and has been something of a specialty for) Kirsten Dunst. As flexible as ever, she does the accent the best of anyone in the movie, and plays Amber as a somehow credible mixture of savvy and small-town backwardness. One only need watch this movie after seeing her as a human train wreck in crazy/beautiful and the stereotypical cheerleader in Bring it On to see the range of characters she can make believable, likeable, and distinct. Her newfound fame due to Spider-Man is almost unfortunate, if it means we will no longer see her in the smaller, more personal roles like this or crazy/beautiful.
There are plenty of sight gags and some obvious humor, but much of it is more subtle. It is blended with some truly awful events, some of which we see probably more closely than we'd like, somewhat akin to the classic Heathers. Despite the similarity in tone, however, this is an entirely different movie, and found a niche I hadn't seen carved before. Especially given this movie's mediocre ratings, which I think must be largely due to the strange packaging and the performances of Alley and Richards, I think you will be pleasantly surprised by this darkly hilarious send-up.
One thing really bugged me. Becky Ann's 'talent contest' performance, in which she sings awfully (but, in her defense, that appears to be intentional) and dances pathetically, was quite funny, and one of the more sickly hilarious moments in the film. (There. I feel better. I'm sure Ms. Richards is a very nice person...) On the down side of that, I get sick of seeing the psychotic characters being the ones spouting Christian rhetoric in movies. Christians may often have earned that portrayal, but Christ has not, and the theme has been run into the ground.
In sum, now that this one is on the bargain racks, I consider it a steal. There are essentially no extras on the DVD, though I did like what the menu screen does when you choose an option. You'll see what I mean.
Director: Michael Patrick Jann
Running Time: 97 minutes
Rated PG-13 for irreverent and crude humor, sex-related material and language.
Click here for complete details at IMDB.com.
Copyright 2003 by Toby Baldwin
Originally written September 4, 2001
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