TODAY, THE MAKEOVER IS THE MOST profound symbol of the American Dream. To look like something, on stage or screen or even in dream-time, is to be it. Ages ago, Horatio Alger gave us the rags-to-riches story of bootstrap Jack; now Oprah and Sally transform the dowdy and the downtrodden into CEOs, model moms, revivified husbands, and demure children -- if in appearance only.

In the beauty pageant, the makeover is the entire show: The girl next door dresses like a strident talent, a debutante, a bathing beauty. Never mind that these symbols are outdated, and shelve any expectations of fair (or even understandable) competition: It doesn't matter what you win or how you win, only that you win.

To the contestants in Drop Dead Gorgeous, winning means a ticket out of small-town Minnesota. Kirstie Alley, with a lip-curling, milk-curdling, "ya betcha" accent, is Gladys Leeman, former pageant winner, mother of leading contestant Becky (Denise Richards), and coincidentally, manager of this year's small-town pageant. One by one, Becky's competitors begin to meet with unfortunate "accidents," until Becky's nemesis Amber Atkins (Kirsten Dunst) fears she may be the last of the competition.

Ellen Barkin, as Amber's mom, provides a little bit of grounding for this predictable wackiness, but even she cannot overcome the movie's grasping desire to be not only the most beautiful, but the smartest in the class. Actually, Drop Dead Gorgeous really, really wants to inherit the audience for smart comedies like There's Something about Mary -- so much so that the writer even includes a Developmentally Disabled Adult with his own built-in laugh track. When the movie's only big funny moment falls on the poor retard's head, the viewer really starts to sympathize with political correctness.

Like its leading contestant, Drop Dead Gorgeous is coy and cloying. This is Big Hair satire at its worst, with nary a color consultant in view. Where oh where is Jose Eberhart?

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