Miss Congeniality (2000)

D: Rod Lurie
S: Sandra Bullock, Michael Caine

When a maniac threatens a beauty pageant, the FBI infiltrates the competition with one of their own. By happenstance (or contrivance) the only person for the job is uncouth Sandra Bullock, a lifetime tomboy with no time for niceties. In order to make her passage through the competition to the final stages credible, veteran image consultant Michael Caine is hired to groom her. Meanwhile contest organiser Candice Bergin ("it's not a beauty contest, it's a scholarship programme!") is having fits while long time pageant host William Shatner attempts to keep a straight face.

There are one or two good gags in this formulaic romantic comedy, which attempts to do for Bullock what Never Been Kissed did for Drew Barrymore. Bullock pulled strings behind the scenes here as Barrymore did on her film, and one must therefore presume the actor felt this was a suitable vehicle. She has had rather a rough time of late, and with films like 28 Days and Forces of Nature one gets the sense that she has been searching for a persona to break the mould established early in her career.

Believe it or not, the film purports to have some kind of quasi-serious point to make about contemporary feminine identity. Bullock's character goes from dismissive to understanding of the type of woman who chooses to display herself in such competitions. She learns that underneath the skin and bone and vaseline smiles beat the hearts of real women with real lives among whom friendships eventually develop in spite of the initial bitchiness. Attempts to humanise the contestants fall flat however when much of the humour revolves around emphasising their vacuity in contrast to Bullock's depth. You can't really have it both ways, and both Smile and Drop Dead Gorgeous have found outright condemnation to be a richer source of satire and/or belly laughs. There is a feeling of hedged bets here, and the film overall therefore has nothing to fall back on except Bullock herself.

To be fair, she handles herself well in the part. She does try to look dowdy, and affects a physical persona throughout the early scenes which is certainly intended to portray the character as written. Of course it requires relatively little effort for her to transform into a sophisticated beauty, and though she continues to play the gruff card throughout, you never really buy it. This kind of thing almost never works anyway, so it's not really all that remarkable that it fails again. Caine meanwhile looks frankly ill in his supporting role. He attempts to enliven the character by underplaying the camp elements (he's meant to be gay). He has one or two nice moments, but it just isn't enough: Little Voice this is not. Bergin and Shatner are fun in their respective roles, and Shatner has probably the best line in the picture (a Freudian slip about lesbians which he handles with deadpan ease), but the script is simply never sharp enough with the characters to go any deeper than reaction gags. The plot itself peters out predictably and is never excessive enough to get away with it as some kind of satiric double-bluff.

Miss Congeniality is not intended to tax the brain or stretch the palette of viewing experiences of mainstream audiences. This is Pygmalion redux with a smidgen of girl power designed for cheap, easy laughs. It doesn't really produce all that much laughter though, and though it does pass the time painlessly enough, it is essentially a nothing of a film which will fill out the video store shelves and bargain bins without ever becoming beloved. It is arguable as to whether or not female viewers will find it offensive. Despite the star billing, it is not really a film for the 'boys' either, especially with its emphasis on a clumsy and unbelievable romantic sub-plot. That this eventually resolves itself with Bullock lapsing into type and cliché makes it all the less likely to appeal to its target demographic. This is really another case of seen the trailer, seen the movie: high concept, big name, enough gags for a two-minute advertisement. It is more a vehicle for popcorn sales than Sandra Bullock, and is not likely to significantly affect the appeal of either.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2001.