In the final stretch heading up to Christmas Day, 'tis the season for sharing and spreading good cheer, indulging on the treats that come with the tidings, and retreating from the day-to-day drudgery in the comfort of one's family and friends. And while a number of potentially Oscar-nominated films are traditionally unleashed in theaters at this time of year (to be eligible for this year's awards), the studios haven't forgotten what the holidays mean to the average moviegoer. Thus, in addition to all the 'serious' releases (that are supposed to be 'good' for you), audiences are treated to the cinematic equivalent of junk food, films that offer nothing more than two hours' worth of entertainment that can be enjoyed in the comfort of strangers or friends. "Miss Congeniality" is just such a movie-- a silly guilty pleasure that's worth a few laughs.
Gracie Hart (Sandra Bullock of "28 Days"), a tomboyish FBI agent, is 'unladylike' in the worst way possible-- she talks while chewing food, she snorts like a pig when she laughs, she lacks any shred of grace and poise, and to quote Ms. Hsuan on "Mad TV", 'she looka lika man'. However, that all must change when she is handpicked by fellow agent Eric Matthews (Benjamin Bratt, seen recently in "Red Planet") for an undercover assignment at the Miss United States Beauty Pageant. It seems that a mad bomber known as 'The Citizen', has picked this cherished American institution as his next target. Of course, Gracie is against the whole plan, as she finds the idea of parading around in a swimsuit with the other air-headed contestants, who only think of 'world peace', as degrading.
However, she is the only woman for the job, and with the blessing of pageant organizer Kathy Morningside (Candice Bergen of "Murphy Brown" fame) and long-running host Stan Fields (William Shatner of "Star Trek" fame), Gracie enters the contest as a last-minute substitute for Miss New Jersey. With only two days before the pageant begins, the FBI enlists veteran 'beauty pageant consultant' Victor Melling (Michael Caine of "The Cider House Rules") to whip Gracie into shape.
Before you can say 'Pygmalion', Gracie is transformed into beauty pageant material. Though the hair and the makeup are resolved in an all-night-long marathon session involving a crack team of beauticians, Gracie's no-nonsense and cynical attitude are not so easily fixed. This, of course, creates a 'fish out of water' situation when she must rub shoulders with her fellow contestants and appear 'stately' on live television-- all with fairly humorous results.
I couldn't help but be reminded of "Bring It On" as I watched "Miss Congeniality". Like the "Clueless"/cheerleading hybrid of this past summer, "Miss Congeniality" irrepressibly mocks its subject matter, namely beauty pageants, with unrelenting cynicism-- the Marc Lawrence ("Forces of Nature"), Katie Ford, and Caryn Lucas-penned script leaves very few stones unturned. And though "Bring It On" benefited from a higher laugh quotient, "Miss Congeniality" is still able to deliver a number of decent chuckles and even a few honest-to-goodness laughs, as Gracie must not only deal with the arcane rites of the beauty pageant, but she must also get in touch with her 'feminine' side as well.
Part of the reason why the film works is Sandra Bullock, who actually takes a step backwards from her terrific performance in "28 Days". In playing Gracie, Bullock returns to the type of role that she can sleepwalk through, that of the hapless heroine who is in over her head. In most cases, which is usually due to weak material, the result is bland, such as her forgettable lead roles in "Practical Magic", "Hope Floats", and "Gun Shy". In the case of this most recent film, the script and the ripe material play to her strengths as a comic actress, making good use of her natural charisma and likability, both before her transformation and after.
The choices in Bullock's supporting players vary in quality. At the high end of the scale are Caine, who does a rather memorable turn as Gracie's 'drill sargeant', and Shatner, who seems to have a ball parodying his on-screen persona (though not to the degree seen in last year's "Free Enterprise"). At the other end of the scale is Bratt, who seems to get lost into the background, as he really shares no chemistry with Bullock and his poorly written character seems to be a few bricks short of a personality. Also disappointing is Heather Burns ("You've Got Mail"), who plays fellow contestant Cheryl 'Miss Rhode Island'-- her one-note portrayal of an airhead contestant gets old really fast.
In addition to some questionable casting decisions, "Miss Congeniality" suffers from a narrative misfire. The message seems to get a little muddled when it shamelessly mocks the beauty pageant contestants (a supposed nuclear fission major considers 'April 25th' to be the 'perfect date'), only to turn around and have Gracie revere 'how smart' they are in one of the film's more 'emotional moments', and then reduce her to just another 'world peace' advocate by the last reel. By doing so, the script basically kills the credibility of its protagonist (not to mention her emotional growth) by stripping away all her strong character traits and leaving only fluff behind, and the ending no longer seems to ring true.
If you have a craving for something airy and light (and I don't just mean popcorn), "Miss Congeniality" is not a bad way to spend a couple of hours. Other than the occasional misfire, "Miss Congeniality" delivers everything you would expect from cinematic junk food-- it keeps you occupied, gives you a few laughs, and sends you out of the theater with a smile.