Deep breath, girls, and smile.
Come, my dears, buck up. After all, apres a grueling shopping day, all we want to do is to put aside our lists, sink down with a box of Whoppers and shut down the neurons for some mindless escapism. Why not let the prattling, lip-gloss sheen of “Miss Congeniality” wash over us? Surely we can accept lovely Sandra Bullock as the ungainly FBI agent Gracie Hart, whose snorting horse laugh and toss-out-the-rule-book attitude have won her the position as the Starbucks coffee gofer girl.
The premise is fairly promising: Have a gauche misfit go undercover in the Miss United States Pageant, which is being threatened by a mad domestic terrorist called “the Citizen.” This psychopath has a penchant for bombs, bullets and incendiary devices, so imagine what he could do to a runway of girls pumped up on aerosol hair spray.
So what if most of the jokes fall flatter than Bullock’s pratfalls at least Bullock’s pavement dances are comical. Of course, she can only sacrifice herself so much for laughs that should have been more forthcoming. (Ah, right, the holiday season time for a little charity.)
Anyway, the head of this covert operation is fellow agent and lady-killer Eric Matthews (Benjamin Bratt, in a return to his “Law & Order” days). Even though Hart has been exiled to paperwork purgatory for nearly fouling up an arrest, the wannabe profiler wants to work on the Citizen case. She comes up with all the ideas, including the undercover contestant, but it’s Matthews who pressures her to be the banner-wearer (after his first candidate turns out to be on maternity leave). His arm-twisting literally turns out to be a wrestling match in the FBI exercise room; Bullock here makes up for her poor form on a living-room punching bag in an earlier scene with some good judo-style falls and throws.
After the mutual manhandling, Hart agrees to be Miss New Jersey, Gracie Lou Freebush, an appellation not heard since Bond girls Pussy Galore and Octopussy. She brings her bushy eyebrows, mannish stride, unkempt hair and rabidly carnivorous appetite to the attention of Victor Melling (Michael Caine). A pageant consultant to budding beauty queens, and somewhat of a queen in his own right, Melling drove his last client to an on-stage nervous breakdown. Hart also has to deal with the horrified organizer, Kathy Morningside (Candice Bergen), who does not want her “scholarship program” to be compromised.
Beauty contestants have been ridiculed so often that by all rights they should show signs of wear and tear. “Miss Congeniality” throws the same old stones, retreading the “world peace” punch line as pageant mantra. The film could have easily detoured in the imaginative direction of, say, “Best of Show,” but if it couldn’t become a wicked burlesque, then at least it might have tried for good-natured jibe about trying to be on your best behavior, even if it goes against your nature.
Hart gets dragged into midnight makeovers with her Henry Higgins. While protesting this Pygmalion treatment, the gung-ho but clumsy Hart doesn’t seem interested in grilling the girls or the pageant officials either.
Oh, sorry, lost the focus. (Turn off the mind, think happy thoughts soft bunnies, snowflakes, ohhhmmmmmmm.) “Miss Congeniality” does boast an auspicious cast. Caine and Bergen give far more than their lines deserve as the natty despots of deportment. William Shatner plays it straight as the bemused Bert Parks-esque host who comes under suspicion when it turns out the network is firing him.
Bullock still has a way of pulling at the heartstrings and jarring the funny bone, whether it’s when she’s smuggling doughnuts in her evening gown, making music out of glasses filled with water in the talent portion or trying to convince her perennially aggrieved boss (Ernie Hudson) of her worth. The film is the third under her production company, Fortis Films, and will probably be her most successful, especially compared to “Hope Floats” and “Gun Shy.”
Bullock knows how to showcase her vulnerability, but unfortunately she can’t compensate for plot implausibilities that don’t have to be implausible, or clichs that don’t have to be clichd. Instead of talking into her earpiece, for instance, Matthews summons Hart at night by knocking on her sliding glass door no network or hotel security people in sight, despite the terrorist threat. The fellow contestants, meanwhile, include the amiable but fiery redhead Miss Texas, the freshly scrubbed, baton-twirling Miss Rhode Island, the “you go girl” cool Miss California, the straight-talking Miss New York and the Aloha-friendly-but-catty-but-good-at-heart Miss Hawaii.
Ultimately, “Miss Congeniality” is two-faced. By concentrating on Hart’s fumbling attempts to learn the choreography or walk down the spiraling staircase, the humor shifts from satirizing the pageant to tossing one-liners about a misfit. The flesh show as the movie touts pageants to be then becomes the norm, if not an idealized ambition for a “complete” woman. (Ouch, ouch, sorry, that was a thought.)
The movie does pick up, say, about 20 minutes before the end. Of course Hart discovers sisterhood in girliness. Of course she finds that she can be a babe in a bikini. Of course she and her priggish Professor Higgins bond. Of course when she reverts back to her old ensemble, she keeps the better hairstyle. Of course she ends up defending the cause of beauty pageants, without necessarily finding any redeeming value in them.
Whoppers sure are tasty treats, aren’t they?