Drop Dead Gorgeous

Published: Friday, July 30 1999 9:57 a.m. MDT

There are so few "original" ideas floating around Hollywood these days that you almost hate to brand any one film as being especially derivative — or, in less-kind terms, a rip-off.

But if it looks like a rip-off and sounds like a rip-off — as in the case of "Drop Dead Gorgeous" — what else can you call it?

What this surprisingly unsuccessful comedy unashamedly "borrows" from is the nearly forgotten 1975 comedy "Smile," which covered almost all of the same territory — and better. If that wasn't bad enough, the film also appears to pilfer from another pair of much-better films, namely the black comedy "Fargo" and the "mocku-mentary" "Waiting for Guffawing."

Unfortunately, few of the jokes or sight gags work in this frantically paced farce; the whole thing is an exercise in missed opportunities.

Kristen Dust and Denise Richards star, respectively, as Amber Atkins and Becky Leman, two of the contestants competing in their town's beauty pageant.

Both teens badly want to win the contest but for different reasons: The hard-working, lower-class Amber hopes it will be the springboard for a future broadcasting career, while Becky is trying to appease her mother (Kirstie Alley), a former winner reliving her past through her daughter.

Since it seems to be a pretty close race, Becky and her mom aren't below resorting to dirty tricks to win — if not worse things, as a contestant and one of their fellow high school students dies under mysterious circumstances. Amber's mother (Ellen Barkin) is nearly killed as well.

Though it's not exactly original material, there are still some themes ripe for exploration. But scriptor Lona Williams and first-time filmmaker Michael Patrick Jann (both of whom are television veterans) seem to be less interested in the satiric elements of the story than they are with throwing in lowest-common-denominator and mean-spirited humor.

The decision to construct the story so it could be shot in pseudo-documentary fashion doesn't help, and frankly, that conceit adds nothing to the film except to make it seem that much more clumsy and amateurish.

It's not particularly well-acted, either. Richards' mannequin-like line readings are only marginally better than Alley's historionics and bad "Fargo" accent. And Barkin looks disgusted by the whole thing.

Of the bunch, only Dunst fares decently, and that's because her character is so bland that she can't really embarrass her-self.

"Drop Dead Gorgeous" is rated PG-13 for use of crude slang terms and some gross-out sight gags, scattered profanities, a couple of violent tussles, gunplay and explosions, and use of racial epithets.