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"MISS CONGENIALITY"
(2000) (Sandra Bullock, Benjamin Bratt) (PG-13)

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QUICK TAKE:
Comedy: A homely FBI agent gets a crash course in beauty and manners as she goes undercover as a contestant to catch a criminal who's made a threat toward a national beauty pageant.
PLOT:
FBI special agent Gracie Hart (SANDRA BULLOCK) isn't exactly what anyone would confuse for a beauty queen, but most of that's because she doesn't really care about her looks or manners. That changes, however, when she's assigned to go undercover at the Miss United States Pageant. It seems that a terrorist known only as the "Citizen" has made a threat against the pageant, and Gracie is the only female agent who at least halfway fits the bill as contestant material.

With approval from FBI Supervisor McDonald (ERNIE HUDSON), Gracie, agent Eric Matthews (BENJAMIN BRATT), and their team head for San Antonio where pageant head and former beauty queen Kathy Morningside (CANDICE BERGEN) and show emcee Stan Fields (WILLIAM SHATNER) can't believe what's being asked of them. Not only must they allow Gracie to enter the contest as the representative from New Jersey, but she must also be assured of making it to the final round so as to have access to all pageant areas.

Realizing that Gracie couldn't currently pass as a contestant, Kathy calls in veteran pageant consultant, Victor Melling (MICHAEL CAINE), to work his wonders. Seeing what he has to work with, Victor thinks it's an impossible task to transform Gracie in only a matter of days, but being currently unemployed, he decides to give it a shot.

Arriving in San Antonio, Gracie, who now at least has the proper look, reluctantly joins the other pageant contestants that include Cheryl, Miss Rhode Island (HEATHER BURNS); Karen, Miss New York (MELISSA DE SOUSA); Mary Jo, Miss Texas (DEIRDRE QUINN); and Leslie, Miss California (WENDY RAQUEL ROBINSON), and meets Frank (STEVE MONROE), Kathy's odd son and personal assistant.

Barely knowing what to do and facing self-doubts that she can pull it off, Gracie begins the pageant, with Eric and his team providing backup. With Victor's continued support, Gracie gets to know the other contestants while looking for any signs of the "Citizen" or that terrorist's work.

OUR TAKE: 4.5 out of 10
When one considers the best movies ever made - and such a list is obviously open for debate - there's no arguing that most everything about them is perfect, or at least as near perfect as possible. As such, the various involved elements - the casting and resultant performances, the script, direction and technical work - are not only topnotch, but also seamlessly work together, complementing rather than overriding the others' efforts.

Of course, such films are rare, so most critics and moviegoers must accept films that range from decent to very good. Not surprisingly, films falling into that range often have parts that are excellent or good enough to compensate for whatever deficiencies the film might otherwise have. Most everyone can think of a picture that had great action that offset mediocre or bad acting, or one where great performances made any problems with the script and its story easier to forgive or overlook.

"Miss Congeniality" is one of those latter films. While none of its performances will ever be confused as being great - even for a comedy - and will be just as quickly forgotten as the overall film, some of them certainly help mask the lame, high concept script that certainly doesn't do the actors any favors and clearly is the films' weakest link.

The story - by screenwriters Marc Lawrence ("Forces of Nature," "Life With Mikey"), Katie Ford (various TV programs) and Caryn Lucas (various TV shows) - is comprised of what one could call Hollywood reality. That's the type where characters and events seem somewhat real, but obviously could only exist, behave and occur in a make believe world created by those in the entertainment business.

Although it's obvious that not all films have to adhere to complete and absolutely believable reality, the better ones - especially when otherwise grounded in a non-fantastical fashion - at least try to make occurrences and behavior seem credible.

Here, we're supposed to buy into a number of suspension of disbelief and credibility straining developments. The most obvious, of course, is that star Sandra Bullock is supposed to be considered too homely to be considered even as a last option to go undercover as a beauty pageant contestant, and that she's the only female in the bureau who meets the team's criteria. Even if one accepts that, we're then supposed to believe that her unglamorous and "butch" character could be transformed in just two days into a credible contestant that could fool everyone.

Beyond that, there's the whole bit about her replacing a real contestant and that no one else associated either with the pageant or in the media would eventually figure out she's an imposter (I also kept waiting for the real Miss New Jersey runner-up to arrive -- the winner was disqualified after the FBI found she appeared in a porno film - but that doesn't happen). Such "covert" undercover activity is even harder to accept when her fellow FBI agents discuss case matters with her in front of the other contestants.

Now, such a setup wouldn't be such a bad thing had the writers and director Donald Petrie ("My Favorite Martian," "Grumpy Old Men") used such material for additional comedic potential (such as the FBI having to detain the real New Jersey contestant, etc.). Unfortunately, no such plot saving maneuvers are adopted and the film consequently comes off feeling like one of those sloppy comedies from the '80s seemingly written by a bunch of green screenwriters who lacked the finesse to craft smart and credible stories.

Another big problem is the entire "Citizen" terrorist subplot that serves as a catalyst to get Gracie into the pageant and subsequent situations where humor's supposed to follow. While a few instances of the latter occur, the whole "we must stop the villain" material seems contrived at best, and pretty much something of a lame afterthought at worst that doesn't feel congruous with the tone of the rest of the film.

As such, the filmmakers have seemingly thrown their hopes onto the shoulders of the various cast members and their characters, hoping they can carry the picture. Surprisingly, that's actually not that bad of a move. Although few would confuse any of the characters as classic comedic creations, the way in which a few key performers embody them, coupled with some funny bits of dialogue (the one saving grace as far as the writers are concerned), generally makes the film passably entertaining.

Chief among them obviously is Bullock ("28 Days," "Forces of Nature"). Serving as the film's producer and star, one would think that she'd have more pull in demanding a better-crafted character, but Bullock certainly makes the most of what's been given to her. The actress has always had a certain ability to make audiences like and care for her characters. That certainly works for her in this role, and she gets enough good comedic moments to help one somewhat forgot the film's greater problems.

That also holds true for Michael Caine ("Quills," "The Cider House Rules"). While he could probably play this sort of character in his sleep, he delivers a wonderfully deft performance as the veteran pageant consultant who's forced to do a massive makeover with little time and a less than completely willing participant.

The scene where the two first meet is quite funny - mainly from his reactions to Gracie's less than glamorous behavior - and it's too bad that the filmmakers don't maintain that fun level of comic friction throughout the proceedings. Nonetheless, and as is the case with a great many movies in which he appears, whenever Caine is on the screen, the film becomes much easier to watch.

Unfortunately, the same doesn't hold true for Benjamin Bratt ("Red Planet," "The Next Best Thing"), at least here and as his character is written and generally underdeveloped. Obviously present to be both the pain in the rear partner and the potential love interest, Bratt has the looks to keep the ladies in the audience pleased, but his character is so flat - as is the chemistry between him and Bullock - that his presence does absolutely nothing for the film.

Acting veterans Candice Bergen ("Starting Over," "Carnal Knowledge") and William Shatner (the various "Star Trek" films) show up in supporting roles, and while neither is outstanding, Shatner obviously fares much better with his emcee part than does Bergen in an exaggerated form of the irritated, semi-tyrannical character she honed for years in TV's "Murphy Brown." Heather Burns ("You've Got Mail," TV's "The Street") plays the most prominent contestant and comes off as sweet, but like the rest of the film, isn't credible as it's highly unlikely a contestant like her would have made it to a national pageant championship. The rest of the ladies inhabiting the other contestants pretty much blend together.

That's somewhat of a sad statement since the pageant industry is still ripe for the picking, even after the recent films "Beautiful" and "Drop Dead Gorgeous" took aim at mocking the institution. Here, Bullock's character takes a few pot shots - as do the screenwriters - but they're lacking the venom to make them worthwhile, let alone as funny as they could and should have been.

That pretty much sums up the overall film. While there are some funny moments to be had, they mainly stem from Bullock and Caine's performances that certainly outshine the script and story with which they must work. Had the proceedings had more bite or intelligence to them - let alone humor - the film could have been far better.

As it stands, it's moderately entertaining and occasionally humorous, but otherwise instantly forgettable. Not surprisingly, "Miss Congeniality" might take home the award associated with its name, but it certainly won't finish as a finalist in this or any year's round of best comedies. It rates as a 4.5 out of 10.




Reviewed December 13, 2000 / Posted December 22, 2000


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