IN THE MAKESHIFT NEW COMEDY Drop Dead Gorgeous, a group of would-be teenage beauty queens compete for a title that's costing some of the girls their lives. Set in the fabricated small Minnesota town of Mount Rose, a Lutheran stronghold barricaded by green streets and white faces, the film means to be a darkly funny look at the perils of winning at all costs, but there's nothing dark and searching about its take. It's a satire without a target. There's nothing metaphoric about the setup, either, as it plays out in Lona Williams' screenplay or Michael Patrick Jann's direction. Unlike Michael Ritchie's prickly 1975 send-up Smile, this new film takes for granted the absurdity of beauty pageants, as well as their ultimate saving, and winning, graces. The girls who enter the contest aren't leading empty, meaningless lives in a bankrupt culture — some of them, like the movie's working-class hero, Amber Atkins (Kirsten Dunst), are actually pretty sweet.
There's a curious new niceness in American comedies, even in more vulgar specimens such as American Pie. Drop Dead Gorgeous isn't as cheerfully disgusting as that film, but it does feature a scene in which a dozen contestants projectile vomit as if auditioning for the musical version of The Exorcist. Otherwise, the gross-out factor is kept to a minimum. Shot as a fake documentary — a trend fast wearing out its welcome — Drop Dead is being made by a film crew trying to discover what it takes to become Miss Teen Princess America, the title of a national contest sponsored by a cosmetics company. To that end the crew is tracking Mount Rose's junior contestants, lavishing most of its attention on the tap-dancing Amber and her principal rivals, the indulged Becky Leeman (Denise Richards) and her mother, Gladys (Kirstie Alley), whose obsession with pageants borders on the lethal.
This is easy, familiar stuff, and for the most part it's also fairly painless. Williams is a writer on television's The Drew Carey Show, and she has a talent for the sort of narrow-band, rat-a-tat-tat jokes that pep up better sitcoms. A multitude of filmmaking sins can be obscured within the faux-documentary format, but one of the smartest things Jann does is to treat Williams' dialogue as if it were as disposable as real conversation; unlike most television directors, and too many feature directors, he doesn't wait for the laugh track to kick in. He keeps the pace moving with the action, using the conventions of the documentary to his advantage. Scenes that would usually be smoothed together here smash up against one another, sometimes with little regard for the niceties of continuity. There's a kind of lurching quality to the filmmaking that works, giving the movie a suggestion of coarseness nicely at odds with its lubricated subject.
Drop Dead Gorgeous bobs along for 97 minutes, buoyed by engaging performances from Dunst, Ellen Barkin as Amber's hairdresser mom, Annette, and especially the wonderful Allison Janney as Annette's best friend. A comic actress with immaculate timing (she's the teacher who collapses like a handful of Pick Up Sticks after taking a tumble with John Travolta's president in Primary Colors), Janney plays Loretta, a trailer-park habitué who's always busy wrapping herself around a drink or a man, usually both at the same time. That she, along with Amber and Annette, never deteriorates into white-trash cliché is one of the better things about the film, which has an agreeable heart. If only it had more brains, and a hint of nerve. The film is soft in the middle, lazy; like the contestants themselves, it seems blissfully oblivious to its own potential. With no metaphoric resonance, no ostensible target and, finally, no purpose outside of its own existence, it remains an evanescent entertainment. When it disappears, all that's left is a ghost of a grin.
DROP DEAD GORGEOUS | Directed by MICHAEL PATRICK JANN | Written by LONA WILLIAMS Produced by GAVIN POLONE and JUDY HOFFLUND New Line Cinema | Citywide