Worth A Look: 39.31%
Pretty Bad: 4.83%
Total Crap: 9.66%
8 reviews, 97 user ratings
by Erik Childress
Beauty pageants are an easy target for satire and Miss Congeniality knows this. For most of the movie’s humor is dedicated to taking shots at the air-headed contestants and those who take such contests seriously enough to make a career out of it. So why does it decide to jump ship late in the game and attempt to make true believers out of the audience when it should have focused more attention on the relationship between its heroine and her beauty trainer?The heroine is Gracie Hart played by Sandra Bullock with the kind of frumpiness she really hasn’t explored since 1992’s underrated Love Potion #9. She’s an FBI agent who’s all but one of the guys. She dresses like a tomboy when not in FBI uniform, drinks beer and kicks ass with the best of ‘em. When her Heimlich skills nearly gets one of her colleagues shot, Gracie is relegated to desk jockey. Just in time for a mysterious bomber known as “the citizen” to send the bureau another encrypted message.
"Script Even Clumsier Than Bullock in 'Congeniality'"
This time the target is the Miss USA pageant in Texas. And since Gracie is the only one who looks good in a bathing suit according to the FBI’s computers (something lamely ignored by all the other MALE agents) she gets the call to duty to go undercover. After a little coaxing from operations leader, the womanizing Eric Matthews (Benjamin Bratt, reteaming with Bullock from 1993’s Demolition Man), Gracie is introduced to the aforementioned trainer, Victor Melling (Michael Caine).
Caine immediately brings a sense of class to any project he gets involved with and even more so here as Victor is all about class. Playing Henry Higgins to Gracie’s Eliza Doolittle, Victor must accomplish what he deems the impossible task of transforming this unrefined “Dirty Harriet” into someone who can legitimately compete for the top prize. Even as the contest is rigged for Gracie to make the top ten, Victor takes pride in the job he once held and is eager to do again.
Gracie is considerably less cooperative, particularly after meeting pageant coordinator Kathy Morningside (Candace Bergen) who frowns on the naysayers who call her life’s blood anything but the “scholarship program” she sees it as. We roll our eyes along with Gracie, agreeing that calling these beauty pageants “scholarship programs” is like calling the Third Reich an afterschool recruitment draft. Too harsh? How about buying Playboy for the articles? Either way, a disdain for beauty pageants exists and after a few biting comments hitting the mark, Miss Congeniality takes a wrong turn by trying to win both heads and tails in one flip.
Gracie begins to befriend some of her fellow competitors, including the sweet, but slightly clueless Miss Rhode Island, Cheryl (a lovely performance by Heather Burns). Sarcasm and her no BS rep make her a hit among the girls and the script would have us believe that in less than 48 hrs and a single night out with the gals, that Gracie would reverse her thoughts on what she’s been consistently mocking. I didn’t buy it for a second and more so because the script couldn’t convince me that such thoughts have validity.
I’m sure that they are good and decent people involved somewhere within the confines of such pageants. Not every girl can be a bimbo, an airhead or a vengeful conspirator looking to win at all costs. So why does the script by Marc Lawrence, Katie Ford and Caryn Lucas turn the girls we get to meet into nothing but the various stereotypes it ultimately hopes to dispose of? (When asked to describe the perfect date, Cheryl refers to the calendar.) Perhaps the screenwriters’ combined resumes of films like Forces of Nature, The Out-of-Towners (1999) and television’s The Nanny and the Mary & Rhoda telefilm sheds some light.
If Miss Congeniality had been more tightly written and funnier without resorting to obvious plot machinations, this last minute turnaround could have been viewed as a minor miscalculation. But it misses so many genuine opportunities for comedy and poignancy that it becomes another reminder of writers not doing their homework and slapping together a paint-by-numbers plot and forgetting to buy the paint.
Yet through all its faults, Miss Congeniality still manages to be funny and charming thanks mainly to the winning performances of Bullock, Caine and Burns. I’ve remained a fan of Bullock even through the period of her career since 1995 that includes films like Practical Magic and Speed 2. It’s very plausible that I’m still smitten with her since seeing While You Were Sleeping, but she also showed a wonderful gift of feeling natural and authentic that we wanted to bring her home and introduce her to mom. She also possessed a natural flair for comedy, a talent that has been underused and mishandled, with projects trying to force it out of her in roles that didn’t always call for it. This is the best outlet she’s had since that 1995 gem and she does everything she can with what the script gives her.
Faring even better is Michael Caine who is incredibly funny in the film. If only it focused more squarely on the relationship between Victor and Gracie and his grooming techniques, something truly special could have emerged. Their scenes together are the best in Miss Congeniality and it deserved more of them. Less successful is Benjamin Bratt, whose Matthews could be a funny character, but Bratt seems a little too full of his own self rather than his character to effectively achieve what the story calls for.
Even less successful is the handling of “the citizen.” While a necessary antagonistic plot device to get and keep the ball rolling, the persistence of the whodunit with its standard red herrings keep interrupting what we want to see and that’s more Caine/Bullock interaction. The identity of the surprise villain stares you literally right in the face (with one eye) early on, but then the true reveal about two-thirds in causes even bigger distractions by the questions it raises. Ask yourself why “the citizen” wouldn’t back off their plans knowing the FBI is breathing down their neck. And how does that explain the other bombings prior to the latest plot?
If you’re following a pattern here, you start to get a sense of what seeing Miss Congeniality is like. Funny moments interspersed with ones that make you wonder where the funny moments went. Moments like the way Gracie’s talents are used during the pageant. Especially during the final rounds, which is, at times, hysterically funny, nearly saving the film from the turnaround it takes in the final scenes.
The film needed more lines like Bergen’s displacement of pageant haters as “intellectuals and ugly people” or Caine’s response to Bullock’s talent suggestion. It needed more dissection of the pageant society, which is more about beauty than brains and scholarships. Nothing makes us root for any of the girls to win for having more brains than body, because very few brains are put on display. Nothing is mentioned of Gracie’s more well-rounded acceptance as a hottie rather than an average woman. How much does it say for women’s lib that despite being a full-on agent, she’s also the FBI’s designated coffee girl?The only freshness that can be brought to a story which has already been covered in films like Smile and Pygmalion is from the performances. We know Caine is going to be able tear away the banana peel of mawkishness of Bullock to reveal the true beauty that we know she already is. A little Michael Caine goes a long way especially when he’s doing comedy and he makes the most of it. Bullock is fun here too starting frumpy then getting to play the clumsy glamorous with occasional tongue ticks. Miss Congeniality hits a few high notes and misses a few more. Like beauty pageants themselves, its pretty to look at and a reasonable distraction for two hours. But once its over, you don’t give it a second thought.
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originally posted: 12/21/00 19:16:27