MISS CONGENIALITY (2000): unappealing pieces greatly outnumber those that offer ephemeral entertainment

Cast
Sandra Bullock as Gracie Hart
Michael Caine as Victor Melling
Benjamin Bratt as Eric Matthews
William Shatner as Stan Fields
Candice Bergen as Kathy Morningside

Directed by
Donald Petrie

Written by
Katie Ford
Caryn Lucas
Marc Lawrence

Genres:
Action, Comedy, Romance

110 minutes

If there were lingering doubts that the time has come to write an obituary for Sandra Bullock’s days as a leading lady, Miss Congeniality should dispel them. Trailing in the wake of a string of duds, the most recent of which were the un-releasable Gun Shy and the not-much-better 28 Days, Miss Congeniality marks the latest wrong step in a career that once burned brightly. But the days of Speed and While You Were Sleeping are long past.

Bullock must bear the responsibility for Miss Congeniality’s failure – not only is she the star, but she’s the producer, as well. It’s impossible to absolve someone when they wear those hats – some of the disapprobation goes to director Donald Petrie (Grumpy Old Men), but the lion’s portion is reserved for Bullock.

Miss Congeniality introduces us to Gracie Hart (Bullock), a no-nonsense, tomboy FBI agent who’s part of a team on the trail of a vicious serial killer who goes by the name of “The Citizen.” In order to track her quarry, she must go undercover as Miss New Jersey in the annual Miss United States beauty pageant, held in San Antonio, Texas.

So, after convincing the pair who run the pageant, Kathy Morningside (Candice Bergen) and her faithful sidekick, Stan (William Shatner), that her participation is warranted, Gracie starts getting to know her co-contestants while keeping the FBI team leader, Eric Matthews (Benjamin Bratt), informed of the status of her investigation. Meanwhile, beauty contest consultant Vic Melling (Michael Caine) is brought in to transform Gracie into a picture of elegance and grace – a task he initially deems impossible.

Even in peak form, Bullock has never been regarded a great actress, and her occasional forays into dramatic material have confirmed this perception. However, she is normally charismatic and appealing – qualities that are inexplicably absent in her portrayal of Gracie, Miss Congeniality’s protagonist. Here, she is dull and lifeless, although no more so than her male co-star, Benjamin Bratt (giving indications that he’s following in David Caruso’s footsteps on the pathway from TV stardom into motion picture oblivion), who looks like he’s appearing in a Steven Seagal act-alike contest.

Julia Roberts must see something in this guy in real life that doesn’t show up on the screen. The romantic pairing of Bullock and Bratt turns out to be a horrible mistake. They fizzle when they should sizzle and have all the zing of carbonated water gone flat. Fortunately, supporting players like Michael Caine and William Shatner are on hand to liven things up. In addition to having nearly every amusing line dished out by the lame and predictable script, Caine seems to be enjoying himself as a gay beauty contest consultant. And William Shatner, who looks more like the Pillsbury Dough Boy than Captain Kirk, offers an amusing send-up of himself crossed with Burt Parks.

The existence of Beautiful saves Miss Congeniality from being the worst beauty contest movie of the year, but if ever a statement could be accused of damning with faint praise, that’s it. This film is a mess – it can’t make up its mind whether it wants to be a drama, a comedy, or an action movie. At times, it descends into slapstick (as when Gracie teaches the art of self-defense by abusing Eric), but, more often than not, it slips into overt sentimentality.

In fact, during those scenes when Michael Caine is not around, the movie is in constant danger of wallowing in mawkishness. Miss Congeniality also steals shamelessly from Pygmalion (Vic making over Gracie from an ugly duckling cop into a stunning, statuesque beauty), but truncates the process to the point where it loses its appeal. Plus, there are a few perfunctory action sequences – but these have all the energy of a dead battery. And haven’t we seen enough beauty contest bashing in the past few years? Maybe Christopher Guest (Best In Show) could do something interesting with this material, but not Petrie.

This is a film where the dull, unappealing pieces greatly outnumber those that offer ephemeral entertainment. It’s an obvious dud, which raises the question of why Warner Brothers chose to throw it into theaters during the single most competitive week of the year (instead of waiting a month and jettisoning it with all of the other January trash). Regardless, Miss Congeniality will reach video as quickly as Bullock’s last two films. Hopefully, the next time the actress surfaces, she will have regained the charm that initially put her in the public spotlight. If not, the quality of her output isn’t likely to increase from what Miss Congeniality offers.

A female FBI agent (Sandra Bullock) who’s just “one of the guys” is chosen to go undercover as a beauty pageant contestant in MISS CONGENIALITY.

Gracie Hart (Bullock) is an FBI agent who is in trouble with her boss. Forced to do deskwork, she can’t help but give advice to the leader of an investigation, Eric Matthews (Benjamin Bratt), on a case involving a letter from a known bomber. This advice, though not acknowledged, is a great help to the team. When the letter’s true message is decoded, it is discovered that the bomber’s next target is the Miss United States Pageant. Needing someone to go undercover, the team sifts through potential female FBI agents, but to no avail. Then, on a whim, Eric considers Gracie for the job. Though she refuses at first, Gracie realizes that it is better than her current position.

The team heads to Texas, where the pageant will be held. There, they meet the head of the pageant, Kathy Morningside (Candace Bergen), and the pageant’s host, Stan (William Shatner). Eric and Gracie go over their intentions for handling the event with Kathy and Stan, telling them that an agent will be going undercover to accomplish the task. The real task, however, is transforming Gracie, who’s a bit rough around the edges, into a beauty queen.

All involved are skeptical about the idea being convincing so Kathy recommends “Vic” (Michael Caine), who has worked with many girls preparing for pageants. He meets Gracie and immediately refuses. He later decides to take on the task, however. Slowly, the change takes place, not only on the outside, but on the inside, too. Though the task starts out as something Gracie resents, she learns things that not only open her mind, but her heart as well.

MISS CONGENIALITY is a movie that takes its audience into a silly whirlwind of beauty pageants, exposing its truths and misconceptions. The storyline moves along, though snagging on a few silly plot points and “bumbling” villains. However, it is Sandra Bullock who plays her role as Gracie with spunk and hilarious facial expressions. It is these things that add to the silliness of the movie, but take away from any semi-dramatic scenes.

Despite the movie’s many laughs, however, there are some questionable elements that blemish it. Things brought to the surface, such as one character’s abrasive treatment of another and Gracie’s personal struggles, are never explored, a defect which seems to keep things on a level that is more silly than funny. This is an entertaining movie, but beware of a mild romantic worldview, plenty of foul language and other questionable content.

Content:
(Ro, B, Pa, Ab, Ho, LLL, V, S, N, AA, D, MM) Mild romantic worldview of characters in an idealistic story with some moral elements of justice being served, pagan elements of eclectic behavior, character yells profanity then says prayer aloud to stay undercover, & 2 homosexual characters, one who states a pro-lesbian slogan; 12 obscenities, 7 profanities, 7 exclamatory profanities, & some sexual references; boy attempts to punch girl hitting post instead, girl punches, kicks boys, woman throws a fit by kicking & slamming things, explosions, woman slaps man on back of head, man choking, men point guns at each other, man holds knife to woman’s throat, struggle with guns, & scenes of punching & kicking for defense; some references to sexual activity among girls & talk of intentions for fornication; upper male nudity & some skimpy clothing; bar scene, alcohol use & drunkenness; smoking; and, joking about bulimia & character plots destruction.

In Brief:
Sandra Bullock stars in MISS CONGENIALITY, where she plays Gracie, a female FBI agent who’s just “one of the guys.” Gracie is chosen to go undercover as a beauty pageant contestant, but she needs a makeover. Though the case is tough, the tougher task will be for her to pull it off.

MISS CONGENIALITY takes its audience into a silly whirlwind of beauty pageants, exposing its truths and misconceptions. The storyline moves along, though snagging on a few silly plot points and “bumbling” villains. Sandra Bullock plays her role as Gracie with spunk and hilarious facial expressions. It is these things that add to the silliness of the movie, but take away from any semi-dramatic scenes. Despite the movie’s many laughs, however, there are some questionable elements that blemish it. Things brought to the surface, such as one character’s abrasive treatment of another and Gracie’s personal struggles, are never explored. Even though the movie is a comedy, these defects seem to keep things on a level that is more silly than funny. This is an entertaining movie, but beware of a mild romantic worldview, plenty of foul language and other questionable content.

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