The Daily Stream: Jesus Loves Winners As Long As They're Drop Dead Gorgeous

(Welcome to The Daily Stream, an ongoing series in which the /Film team shares what they've been watching, why it's worth checking out, and where you can stream it.)

The Film: "Drop Dead Gorgeous"

Where You Can Stream It: HBO Max

The Pitch: Join a fake-documentary crew visiting the beautiful Mount Rose, Minnesota for the annual Mount Rose American Teen Princess pageant, a qualifying pageant as part of the nation-wide American Teen Princess Pageant. Run by Gladys Leeman (Kirstie Alley), former pageant queen and matriarch of the richest family in town, watch to see if her prodigal daughter Rebecca Ann Leeman (Denise Richards) will continue the family legacy and take the crown, or if she will be usurped by impoverished underdog Amber Atkins (Kirsten Dunst). What starts off as an ordinary look into a small-town pageant takes a wild turn after contestant Tammy Curry (Brooke Elise Bushman) explodes on an agriculture thresher. Now the lives of all of the contestants, including Leslie Miller (Amy Adams) and Lisa Swenson (Brittany Murphy) are in danger — but as they say in the pageant business, the show must go on.

Why It's Essential Viewing

Despite "Drop Dead Gorgeous" being one of the best comedies, no exaggeration, in history, the film remains criminally underseen due to accessibility. The original run of the DVD was out of print for many years, and took over 22 years to finally get a Blu-ray. The film has popped up here and there on random streaming services for short periods of time, but for the most part, "Drop Dead Gorgeous" is a film many people are still discovering after all these years. The script comes from Lona Williams, who also wrote the teen black comedy "Sugar and Spice," and it remains the only directorial feature of ​​Michael Patrick Jann (of "The State" and "Reno 911" fame).

Christopher Guest may have cornered the market on mockumentaries, but "Drop Dead Gorgeous" is the only film that rivals the perfection of "This is Spinal Tap." Every cast member, and I mean every cast member, is pitch-perfect. Kirsten Dunst, Ellen Barkin, Brittany Murphy, Allison Janney, Denise Richards, Kirstie Alley, Amy Adams (in her feature debut), Mindy Sterling, Sam McMurray, Will Sasso, Mike McShane, Alexandra Holden, Matt Malloy, Nora Dunn, Mo Gaffney, Patti Yasutake, former pop idol Seiko Matsuda, Samantha Harris, and cameos from Thomas Lennon and Adam West make the ensemble cast of our dreams, and everyone is firing on all cylinders. The talent in this film is unparalleled, which makes it even more frustrating that "Drop Dead Gorgeous" never became the massive hit it so deserved to be.

The Perfect Satire of Midwestern Small Town America

For those that have never experienced the Midwest, "Drop Dead Gorgeous" absolutely nails it. Even the aspects of the film that have aged poorly, like Will Sasso's portrayal of someone with a cognitive disability, are still an unflinching look at the way close-minded communities treat anyone that exists outside of the status quo. Mount Rose is a true-to-form small town, where everyone knows everyone's business and something like going to the mall is an all day excursion. When the documentarian asks Gladys about the city, she explains it perfectly.

Gladys: I think you boys are gonna find something a little bit different here in Mount Rose. For one thing, we're all God-fearing folk, every last one of us. And you will not find a "back room" in our video store. No, no, that filth is better left to the sin cities.

Iris: AKA Minneapolis/St. Paul

The Leeman family are the definition of "big fish in a small pond," where the wealthiest people in a tight-knit community can get away with literal murder by writing a few checks. The Atkins family is in complete opposition, with Amber living in a trailer park with her single mom, a foul-mouthed in-trailer beautician who at one point ruins a fresh pair of Lee press-on nails when a beer can is fused in her hand during a trailer fire. In place of a father, Amber has her mom's best friend Loretta, a hyper-sexualized ball of sarcasm who says things like "most smartest." Watching them all interact represents a very specific part of the country, and one that never gets the chance to shine in big-city moving pictures.

The Film Is Endlessly Quotable

I did some googling to see what sort of movies are considered to be the "most quotable comedies" and the lists had universally one thing in common: they were all almost if not exclusively centered on men. Films like "Dumb and Dumber," "The Big Lebowski," "Billy Madison," "Tommy Boy," and most of Bill Murray and Will Ferrell's careers dominated these lists, and "Drop Dead Gorgeous" was nowhere to be found. I'm not here to get into the complexities of misogyny in comedy cinema, but "Drop Dead Gorgeous" deserves to be among these greats. The comedy of "Drop Dead Gorgeous" is non-stop, and if it's not a snappy one-liner from Ellen Barkin or Allison Janey, it's a visual gag like Denise Richards in a poodle skirt dancing with a crucified velcro Jesus to "Can't Take My Eyes Off Of You" by Frankie Valli.

To add to it all, since the film is set in Minnesota, the accents are like setting "Fargo" at eleven. It's funny to hear Brittany Murphy say "You know what, dad? Peter's gay" on its own, but hearing it screamed like "You know whaht day-ed, Peterrr's ghey ... GHEY!" makes it even funnier. It's impossible to quote this movie without popping into a North-Central American dialect, which makes lines like "Would a nice cool mint help if I shoved your head up your a**?" punch even harder. The dialect provides an intrinsic bitterness to every insult and sweetness to every compliment, just like the entire Midwest region.

Trust Me, I Know From Experience

As I mentioned in my list of favorite movies of all time, I grew up competing in small town pageants in the Midwest, so this movie hits me in a very sweet spot. I'd love to say that "Drop Dead Gorgeous" is just a hilarious satire, but if they'd cast no-names and not changed a thing about it, I could have totally believed this was a straight-up documentary. 

1999 was a massive year for teen movies, and "Drop Dead Gorgeous" very much feels like a casualty of the "depiction is not endorsement" debate. So many people find the film to be in bad taste, but choosing to depict very identifiable bad behavior is not glorifying it. There are few movies that I'd be willing to die on a hill and claim to be "perfect," but "Drop Dead Gorgeous" is one of them. Its charm and success comes from its ability to correctly identify and satirize a part of the country that even news reporters and political campaigns pay no mind, but still cling their hardest to some semblance of the American Dream. Like Amber, I saw competing in small town pageants as a way to get out of the community my family felt trapped by. And like Amber, pageantry was my first real understanding that sometimes the people who peak in high school never really grow up. "Drop Dead Gorgeous" is a comedic masterpiece, and it's long overdue for its flowers and tiara.