The world was a far gentler place some 25 years ago, when Michael Ritchie's Smile lampooned behind-the scenes skullduggery at a small-town teenage beauty contest. At least that earlier film didn't have murdered bodies falling about like squashed flies. In the aptly titled Drop Dead Gorgeous, the citizens of fictional Mount Rose, Minnesota, are putting their lives at considerable risk if they form any association whatsoever with the local American Teen Princess Pageant.

Corpses of all sorts start appearing early on, because one of the young contestants, perky Amber Atkins (Kirsten Dunst), happens to work as a cosmetician in the town's mortuary. This after-school job not only allows her to hone her makeup skills, but also provides an opportunity for her to practice the dance routine she'll perform at the pageant. With brush and blusher in hand, Amber pirouettes among the body-laden gurneys, dabbing a spot of color to a sallow cheek there, a stiffened eyelid here. This inspired madness is only the beginning.

Told in mock documentary style, Drop Dead Gorgeous introduces its cast of crazies one at a time, talking directly to camera. Kirstie Alley is in her glorious prime as Gladys, the rich, well-endowed local doyenne-a former teen princess herself-who will do anything to insure that her beautiful but vacuous daughter Becky (Denise Richards) wins the local pageant and goes on to the nationals. Although she's at the opposite end of the social hierarchy, foul-mouthed, chain-smoking, booze-guzzling Annette (Ellen Barkin) has similar lofty hopes for her daughter, the aforementioned Amber. But Annette is a far more loving mom. After surviving an accidental (oh yeah?) explosion with her badly burned right hand permanently fused to a beer can, she tearfully says to her daughter: 'Amber, you're like this Coors...you're a part of me.'

The spicy, fast-paced script is salt-and-peppered with equally zany zingers. If some of the dialogue sounds like sitcom material, that's because writer/executive producer Lona Williams is a veteran TV sitcom writer. She's also from Minnesota and as a teenager, she reportedly did the beauty pageant thing. So one has to wonder: Did Williams really encounter a competitor whose 'talent' was doing a dramatic monologue from Soylent Green? Or one who danced with a life-size, thorn-crowned, rag-doll Jesus while singing 'Can't Take My Eyes Off You'? And was there really a Lutheran Sisterhood Gun Club in the town where she grew up?

Clearly, Drop Dead Gorgeous holds nothing back-and we mean nothing. One more example: A previous winner of the American Princess title has grown seriously anorexic, but she agrees to be wheeled in (with IV drip attached) to repeat her award-winning talent performance-lip-synching to 'Don't Cry Out Loud.' Who's going to be the new teen princess? Actually, the plot takes so many side roads and U-turns, it's rather a surprise to see who does and who doesn't get his or her comeuppance. Yes, there are a few men living in Mount Rose, and predictably, they're portrayed as a bunch of stupid, lecherous louts.

But the town's female population-ah, they are formidable! Among an outstanding group of mostly young actresses in supporting roles (the wide-eyed pageant participants), attention must be paid to the slightly more mature Allison Janney, who plays Barkin's no-nonsense friend Loretta. She's just swell. (Which sounds like something her character might say-with just the right sardonic inflection, you know?) Of the four fabulously funny leading ladies-the mother/daughter pairs Alley and Richards, Barkin and Dunst-Barkin's trailer-trash turn is a special hoot. And, if nothing else, Drop Dead Gorgeous may be remembered for creating a breakout comedy role for 17-year-old Dunst, who perfectly embodies the pert and perpetually put-upon Amber.

--Shirley Sealy