Film Review – Drop Dead Gorgeous, Election, Instinct, The Haunting

Sad and Lame

(Originally published in TVS Magazine, September 1999)

Mount Rose, Minnesota is the sort of the small town (pop. 560) that has been successfully screwing up Americans for years. Normality and decency are strictly adhered to and, as self-proclaimed queen of town Kirstie Alley points out, “you won’t find a bathroom in our video stores.” Alley is particularly proud of the local ‘Annual Miss Teen Princess America Pageant’, which she ruthlessly organises and was a previous winner. This year she is quietly confident that her unnaturally perfect daughter Denise Richards will win. She is captain of the Young Lutherian Gun Club (after the previous incumbent fell victim to an exploding thresher) and she deserves to win far more than dirt-poor, tap dancing apprentice embalmer Kirsten Dunst, at least according to Alley, and is glad to do anything to make sure her daughter wins. As the death toll rises it’s fortunate for us that there’s a camera crew making a documentary.

Drop Dead Gorgeous is the result. Imagine John Waters directing This Is Spinal Tap. Done that? Good. Although the decidedly uneven battle between Richards and Dunst forms the main narrative, it’s the details that really stand out: last year’s winner cheerfully expiring in an anorexic ward; one of the judges is called John Dough and he’s never been near young girls, sorry contestants, before; the grand prize of $500 in beauty products; Richards’s boyfriend getting a bullet in the head for daring to look at another woman; Dunst’s white trash mother, played by Ellen Barkin, spending most of the film with her hand welded to a beer can – literally, as she was the victim of an exploding trailer home. And this is before we get to the horrors of the pageant itself, complete with with an exhibition of the various contestants’ ‘talents’, such as line-dancing, singing a song to a life-size mannequin of Jesus and soliloquising a scene from Soylent Green.

It’s a camply sick delight, revelling in the tastelessness of its subject matter. You may find yourself watching it through hand-covered eyes but then you might miss the glorious spectacle of another previous winner doing a TV advert for Mount Rose Pork Products. As Dunst says, after an unexpectedly twisted victory, “the whole thing’s kinda sad and lame at the same time.” Add hilarious as well.

Drop Dead Gorgeous is a good high school comedy, and Election is another. It stars Matthew Broderick, who somehow manages to star in really great films like this as well as crap like Godzilla and Inspector Gadget. He plays a teacher obsessed with destroying the ambitions of queen-bitch-o-the-school Reese Witherspoon. This, Drop Dead Gorgeous and the recently released Rushmore make three classily comic films on the same subject matter in six months.

Comical for different reasons, Instinct was, according to its credits, “suggested by the novel Ishmael by Daniel Quinn.” One hopes that Quinn now regrets making the suggestion. Cuba Gooding Jr. – a man who can really furrow his brow – is a top psychologist who gets put on the dreaded ‘Powell Case’. “Only if you can handle it,” warns his boss, Donald Sutherland.

“I can handle it,” avers Gooding.

The dreaded Powell turns out to be Anthony Hopkins, who has been doing a Tarzan; chumming with the chimps in Africa for the last two years. “They said he walked amongst them,” is the bizarrely put prognosis. Whilst walking amongst them, Hopkins murdered three people, so he’s now been sent to a particularly nasty American mental hospital. Hopkins clearly doesn’t like this and refuses to say anything. Gooding sees a chance to Make A Difference.

“What if I can get him to speak?” says Gooding to his wife, who is only there to listen to his guff.

Hopkins spills his guts, but he’s not making much sense. “There’s more at stake here than your book,” he gloats. Everyone in the film talks in daft epigrams; suggesting emotional weight but conveying cornball ribaldry.

“He’s leading me into the jungle,” confides Gooding to Mrs. Cypher, his brow now so furrowed you could grow root vegetables in it. He brazenly confronts Hopkins. “Are you afraid to go back there?”

“Are you afraid to follow?”

“Try me.”

And so this achingly metaphorical journey begins. “It’s not about a career.” Hopkins slowly opens up, changing the lives of all those around him.

“It’s not a case anymore.”

Occasionally Hopkins attacks people, but only the absurdly nasty guards. His punches coincide with a supermarket trolley being smashed into a wall just off camera.

“Freedom is not a dream.” Gooding is becoming a worry. His hairline is now touching his eyebrows.

“You got involved – emotionally.”

Eventually, Hopkins’s secret is revealed. He killed the three men because they were killing the chimps. This revelation is presented like it were Rosebud. Gooding breaks down at the life-affirming wonderfulness of everything.

“Thank you for sharing this journey with me.”

He stands in the rain and raises his arms. The end.

Now I’ve spoiled all the good bits you won’t need to see this polished turd of a movie. Aren’t I good to you? Another movie you could spend quality time avoiding is The Haunting. Unlike the stupidly uncategorizable Instinct, this latest from Jan de Bont is supposed to be a horror film – but isn’t. It’s like pornography with no sex scenes.

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About klausjoynson
I'm a writer, editor, musician, DJ and cartoonist. Contact me at: klausjoynson(at)gmail.com or follow me on Twitter: @KlausJoynson

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