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Dustin Putman

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Miss Congeniality (2000)
2 Stars

Directed by Donald Petrie
Cast: Sandra Bullock, Michael Caine, Benjamin Bratt, William Shatner, Candice Bergen, Ernie Hudson, John DiResta.
2000 – 109 minutes
Rated: Rated PG-13 (for sexual references and a scene of violence).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, December 22, 2000.

In the last 17 months, there have been no fewer than three motion pictures that revolve around the goings-on at a beauty pageant. Each have had different levels of success, but all of them are at least somewhat satirical of both the pageant itself, as well as the contestants. If 1999's "Drop Dead Gorgeous" was a biting, hilariously outlandish semi-comedy classic, and 2000's "Beautiful" was a passable, yet instantly forgettable time-waster, "Miss Congeniality," directed by Donald Petrie (1993's "Grumpy Old Men"), falls somewhere in between. Entertaining, fast-paced, and suitably amiable, the film won't win any award for originality or substance, but it does mark the return of the adorable Sandra Bullock to the world of good movies.

Gracie Hart (Sandra Bullock) has remained an unkempt, tough, but clumsy tomboy ever since childhood. Now an FBI agent, she is hard-working but underappreciated, with the latest sting operation, which she disobeyed orders at, putting her in hot water with her boss (Ernie Hudson). When coworker Eric Matthews (Benjamin Bratt) is appointed team leader for their latest case involving a mysterious serial killer known as "The Citizen," and the location of the next crime points to the Miss United States Pageant, none other than Gracie is tapped to pose as Miss New Jersey to help in the investigation. Appointed to give her a physical makeover is beauty pageant consultant Vic Melling (Michael Caine), who aids in turning her into the drop dead beautiful person she always has been underneath the messy hair and baggy clothes. A feminist who believes, going in, that pageants are degrading to women, Gracie gradually makes friends with some of the other contestants and begins to sympathize with them, understanding that they only wish to make their mark on the world, no matter how full of idealism they may be.

Following a relatively rough opening act that seems to be focusing too much, and too seriously, on the work of the FBI, the action turns to the Miss United States Pageant and "Miss Congeniality" is able to find its footing. Unremarkable, but winning and likable, the film understands that it is nothing more than a lighthearted comedy, and as such, it acts as an enjoyable way to spend 110 minutes. With almost every movie released in December serious-minded with Oscar aspirations, it felt quite refreshing to see something as joyously fluffy as "Miss Congeniality," even more so after sitting through the disposably junky "Dude, Where's My Car?"

Actress-producer Sandra Bullock (2000's "28 Days") remains front-and-center to the action throughout, and turns in her most ambitious performance since her star-making turn in 1995's "While You Were Sleeping." What is so splendid about Bullock's Gracie is how, even when she gains her wings and we inevitably realize she isn't an ugly duckling, her personality remains the same: flawed and laid back, but instantly lovable (and complete with a pig-snorting laugh that, thankfully, doesn't disappear midway through as some sort of throwaway plot device). This movie, in fact, harkens back to several years ago when Bullock was at the height of her success doing more comedic roles, and we are reminded of why she is so very good at what she does: she's funny, beautiful, and not afraid to look like a fool, a la Cameron Diaz.

Romantic tension between Gracie and Eric, passably played by Benjamin Bratt (2000's "The Next Best Thing"), make up one of the main subplots, and it is surprisingly effective, particularly due to the extremely low key that it plays in the proceedings. In fact, their feelings for each other aren't acted upon until the final moments, yet it somehow works--possibly because Bullock and Bratt make a cute couple.

Stealing the show is Michael Caine (1999's overrated "The Cider House Rules"), who hasn't been this good, or equipped with such a splendid role, in ages. Caine invigorates friendly consultant Vic Melling into a character that breaks free of its one-dimensional possibilities, and becomes someone we care about. Caine has proved here what an indelible impression he can make when the material hits the bull's-eye.

Rounding out the cast are Candice Bergen (TV's "Murphy Brown"), as head of the pageant Kathy Morningside, who hams it up perhaps a little too much, and William Shatner ("Star Trek"), who is severely wasted as her assistant Stan. As the nervous, unsure-of-herself Miss Rhode Island, Heather Burns (1998's "You've Got Mail") turns out to be a fresh-faced talent. The same cannot be said for Ernie Hudson (1992's "The Hand That Rocks the Cradle"), who has zilch to do.

Walking out of the theater, "Miss Congeniality" leaves a smile on your face, even as you can't recall many of the exact parts that you laughed at. While never bordering on the schmaltz-fest that "Beautiful" was, but also not nearly as courageous or ambitious as "Drop Dead Gorgeous," the picture has to settle for second or third place in the annals of the genre (1974's "Smile," a smarter look at the same subject, would also rank higher than this). In doing so, it stands as the type of movie ideal for a night of diverting movie-watching that doesn't ask much of your brain. And as a star vehicle, Sandra Bullock is in top form in the sort of role that has become old hat to her by now. She's excellent, but next time she'll hopefully make something that isn't quite so featherweight.

©2000 by Dustin Putman

Dustin Putman