Denise Richards is an indisputable babe. Anyone who watched her charge up Starship Troopers or spark that three-way with Neve Campbell and Matt Dillon in Wild Things knows it. Still, I never thought Richards could act until Drop Dead Gorgeous, a ham-fisted lampoon of beauty contests that traps her in a one-dimensional role and dares her to wriggle out. She does.
Richards plays Becky Leeman, a rich Minnesota bitch who’s dying to win the local Miss Teen Princess America Pageant. The fix is in, thanks to Becky’s Lady Macbeth mom, Gladys (Kirstie Alley), who literally kills the competition. To show off her talent, Becky does a flag-waving, Godfearing musical number that begins with her wearing a Mount Rushmore headdress. Without spoiling other surprises, let me just say that a crucified Jesus on wheels later figures in a dance act. Jesus, indeed.
The screenplay by Lona Williams, a former Minnesota beauty contestant herself, asks only that Becky be the butt of a slew of nasty, tired jokes. But Richards humanizes the character by uncovering her bruised feelings. At twenty-eight, she says she is eager to move past teen roles. She plays a nuclear scientist opposite Pierce Brosnan in The World Is Not Enough, which sounds promising until you realize that the role also makes her the new Bond girl. But Richards has honed her comic and dramatic skills since her days as window dressing on such TV shows as Seinfeld and Melrose Place. And there are more surprises to come.
Kirsten Dunst, Richards’ co-star in Drop Dead Gorgeous, has been performing for fourteen of her seventeen years. At age three, she modeled; later she did commercials and moved on to acting on TV (Sisters) and film (New York Stories). In 1994, Dunst startled audiences as the child ghoul in Interview With the Vampire — a haunting performance that nearly stole the show from Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt. Said Cruise: “There seems to be the experience of a thirty-five-year-old actress in the body of this little girl.”
That experience shows in Drop Dead Gorgeous as the no-longer-little Dunst tears into the role of Amber Atkins, Becky’s chief rival in the beauty pageant. Despite being trailer trash, Amber has ambitions that go beyond those of her hard-drinking hairdresser mom, Annette (Ellen Barkin). Amber wants to become the next Diane Sawyer, though she is not ready to kill to do it. She is content to practice her dancing skills while putting makeup on stiffs in her job at the local mortuary.
Like Richards, Dunst is saddled with a role written in crude, broad strokes. Even worse, she is forced to speak with a Minnesota accent that makes Amber sound like she OD’d on Fargo. Yah, you betcha. Yet Dunst brings warmth and sly humor to the role, even when first-time feature director Michael Patrick Jann invariably goes for the easy joke. The 1975 film Smile and the 1993 TV movie The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom, both directed by Michael Ritchie, far outclass Drop Dead Gorgeous in using beauty competitions to skewer false values. But Dunst and Richards give solid evidence that they will rise to the challenge of better material.
Dunst does get her chance with Dick, a disarmingly clever spoof of the Watergate era. She plays Betsy Jobs, a high school airhead who takes a White House tour with her pal Arlene Lorenzo (Michelle Williams) and overhears President Nixon (a priceless Dan Hedaya) being Tricky Dick with his staff, including Bob Haldeman (Dave Foley) and John Dean (Jim Breuer).
To monitor the girls, Dick hires them as dog walkers. They watch Dick and report his doings to journalists Bob Woodward (Will Ferrell) and Carl Bernstein (Bruce McCulloch). That’s right: Betsy and Arlene are the real Deep Throat. Director Andrew Fleming (The Craft), who co-wrote the script with Sheryl Longin, keeps you smiling at that notion. And when the pace lags, Dunst and Williams pick up the slack with their nimble teamwork. Williams, 18, is especially engaging in a role that veers sharply from the savvy sexpot she plays on Dawson’s Creek.
Arlene develops a hot crush on Dick and sneaks into his office to leave a taped message of her love, not caring that she [Cont. on 128][Cont. from 127] has erased eighteen and a half minutes of the prez’s historical — and criminal — audio records. OK, it’s one joke stretched wafer thin. But Williams, who came up the TV route in hooter shows like Baywatch, now has the acting chops to add layers to a role. She recently appeared off-Broadway in the brutal hit comedy Killer Joe, impressing critics for reasons other than her full-frontal nude scene live onstage. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
In Dick, Williams makes you feel for poor Arlene in her misplaced passion for the president. In Drop Dead Gorgeous, Dunst and Richards are equally avid in their demands on our emotions. These babes aim to prove that pinup power is the least of their assets. It’s only their movies that are skin-deep.