In the last 17 months, there have been no fewer than three motion pictures
that revolve around the goings-on at a beauty pageant. Each have had
different levels of success, but all of them are at least somewhat satirical
of both the pageant itself, as well as the contestants. If 1999's "Drop Dead
Gorgeous" was a biting, hilariously outlandish semi-comedy classic, and
2000's "Beautiful" was a passable, yet instantly forgettable time-waster,
"Miss Congeniality," directed by Donald Petrie (1993's "Grumpy Old Men"),
falls somewhere in between. Entertaining, fast-paced, and suitably amiable,
the film won't win any award for originality or substance, but it does mark
the return of the adorable Sandra Bullock to the world of good movies.
Gracie Hart (Sandra Bullock) has remained an unkempt, tough, but clumsy
tomboy ever since childhood. Now an FBI agent, she is hard-working but
underappreciated, with the latest sting operation, which she disobeyed orders
at, putting her in hot water with her boss (Ernie Hudson). When coworker Eric
Matthews (Benjamin Bratt) is appointed team leader for their latest case
involving a mysterious serial killer known as "The Citizen," and the location
of the next crime points to the Miss United States Pageant, none other than
Gracie is tapped to pose as Miss New Jersey to help in the investigation.
Appointed to give her a physical makeover is beauty pageant consultant Vic
Melling (Michael Caine), who aids in turning her into the drop dead beautiful
person she always has been underneath the messy hair and baggy clothes. A
feminist who believes, going in, that pageants are degrading to women, Gracie
gradually makes friends with some ! of the other contestants and begins to
sympathize with them, understanding that they only wish to make their mark on
the world, no matter how full of idealism they may be.
Following a relatively rough opening act that seems to be focusing too much,
and too seriously, on the work of the FBI, the action turns to the Miss
United States Pageant and "Miss Congeniality" is able to find its footing.
Unremarkable, but winning and likable, the film understands that it is
nothing more than a lighthearted comedy, and as such, it acts as an enjoyable
way to spend 110 minutes. With almost every movie released in December
serious-minded with Oscar aspirations, it felt quite refreshing to see
something as joyously fluffy as "Miss Congeniality," even more so after
sitting through the disposably junky "Dude, Where's My Car?"
Actress-producer Sandra Bullock (2000's "28 Days") remains front-and-center
to the action throughout, and turns in her most ambitious performance since
her star-making turn in 1995's "While You Were Sleeping." What is so splendid
about Bullock's Gracie is how, even when she gains her wings and we
inevitably realize she isn't an ugly duckling, her personality remains the
same: flawed and laid back, but instantly lovable (and complete with a
pig-snorting laugh that, thankfully, doesn't disappear midway through as some
sort of throwaway plot device). This movie, in fact, harkens back to several
years ago when Bullock was at the height of her success doing more comedic
roles, and we are reminded of why she is so very good at what she does: she's
funny, beautiful, and not afraid to look like a fool, a la Cameron Diaz.
Romantic tension between Gracie and Eric, passably played by Benjamin Bratt
(2000's "The Next Best Thing"), make up one of the main subplots, and it is
surprisingly effective, particularly due to the extremely low key that it
plays in the proceedings. In fact, their feelings for each other aren't acted
upon until the final moments, yet it somehow works--possibly because Bullock
and Bratt make a cute couple.
Stealing the show is Michael Caine (1999's overrated "The Cider House
Rules"), who hasn't been this good, or equipped with such a splendid role, in
ages. Caine invigorates friendly consultant Vic Melling into a character that
breaks free of its one-dimensional possibilities, and becomes someone we care
about. Caine has proved here what an indelible impression he can make when
the material hits the bull's-eye.
Rounding out the cast are Candice Bergen (TV's "Murphy Brown"), as head of
the pageant Kathy Morningside, who hams it up perhaps a little too much, and
William Shatner ("Star Trek"), who is severely wasted as her assistant Stan.
As the nervous, unsure-of-herself Miss Rhode Island, Heather Burns (1998's
"You've Got Mail") turns out to be a fresh-faced talent. The same cannot be
said for Ernie Hudson (1992's "The Hand That Rocks the Cradle"), who has
zilch to do.
Walking out of the theater, "Miss Congeniality" leaves a smile on your face,
even as you can't recall many of the exact parts that you laughed at. While
never bordering on the schmaltz-fest that "Beautiful" was, but also not
nearly as courageous or ambitious as "Drop Dead Gorgeous," the picture has to
settle for second or third place in the annals of the genre (1974's "Smile,"
a smarter look at the same subject, would also rank higher than this). In
doing so, it stands as the type of movie ideal for a night of diverting
movie-watching that doesn't ask much of your brain. And as a star vehicle,
Sandra Bullock is in top form in the sort of role that has become old hat to
her by now. She's excellent, but next time she'll hopefully make something
that isn't quite so featherweight.
Copyright © 2000 Dustin Putman