WFTB Score: 11/20
The plot: When a domestic terrorist threatens mayhem at the Miss United States beauty pageant, the FBI need someone with beauty, poise and natural grace to go undercover. Unfortunately, all they’ve got is Gracie Hart: smart, athletic, and as feminine as a builder’s bum-crack.
Gracie Hart (Sandra Bullock) is in trouble. She’s not a rogue agent, exactly, but her tendency to act before she thinks does tend to get her colleagues shot. With her job on the line, she’s naturally passed over when boss Harry McDonald (Ernie Hudson) chooses an agent to head up an operation to thwart ’The Citizen’, a domestic terrorist who teases the FBI with cryptic poems about his targets. Gracie’s colleague and sometime sparring partner Eric (Benjamin Bratt) gets the job of preventing the next outrage, but Gracie’s smarts still come in useful; and when they discover that the Citizen’s next hit is the Miss USA pageant in San Antonio, Texas, a lack of suitable moles makes her even more valuable.
The only problem is, Gracie’s one of the boys, a hard-fighting, beer-swilling tomboy who believes pageants represent Neanderthal, sexist attitudes. Still, she’s the only candidate, so she’s brought up to snuff with the help of dapper consultant Victor Melling (Michael Caine) and a team of industrial beauticians. However, looking like a lady and acting like a lady are two very different things, and as the pageant progresses Gracie works night and day to both fit in with her fellow contestants and unmask the Citizen, whoever he – or she – may be.
At first glance, there’s very little to separate Miss Congeniality from the crowd. It’s an undercover cop movie played as fish-out-of-water comedy, a mash-up of Kindergarten Cop, My Fair Lady, The Princess Diaries and Legally Blonde, the last particularly acting as a direct opposite for comparison (Elle, blonde, gains smarts: Gracie, Brunette, goes vacuous). It shouldn’t surprise you at all that Gracie learns from the girls she initially dismisses, especially Heather Burns’ ditzy Cheryl/Rhode Island, and vice versa; and it’s entirely predictable that the investigation takes an unexpected turn and she has to hand in her badge, forcing her to solve the crime alone.
This is all well-worn territory, and not all of it is slickly executed; for example, the set-up that throws Gracie into the pageant is clunky (the FBI HR database is cross-referenced with a dress-up dolly website to show employees, including Hudson, in swimwear), and her combative romance with Eric exists solely because the rules, for some reason, demand that this kind of story needs a love interest. Bratt’s not particularly interesting, and doesn’t have any chemistry with Bullock, so why force them together?
So it’s a good job that Miss Congeniality benefits from a potent combination of a snappy script and a range of good acting turns. First amongst these is Bullock, who uses her considerable gifts as a comedian (chief among them an admirable lack of vanity) to constantly coax laughs out of Gracie’s predicament. Her slapstick pratfalls may be comedy basics but she works them magnificently, most memorably during her post-transformation reveal.
Bullock is supported brilliantly by Michael Caine, who barely gets out of neutral but almost steals the film regardless, thanks to his scathing-yet-tender attentions towards his ‘Dirty Harriet.’ Candice Bergen and William Shatner have tremendous fun as (respectively) uptight pageant organiser Miss Morningside and oafish MC Stan Fields, both destined for the chop. The warmth and spark of all these performances compensates for the routine nature of the plot, and the fact that it struggles to balance the business of the beauty show with the operation to catch the Citizen (indeed, the terrorist is captured off-screen and never heard from again).
Also, while it’s entirely correct, politically and otherwise, that Miss Congeniality doesn’t use the pageant setting to leer at the contestants, it’s reluctant to reveal what it thinks of women parading around to be objectified and ranked by (mostly) men. You’d have to watch Drop Dead Gorgeous, flawed though that movie is, for commentary on the thought processes of beauty show contestants; I’d guess their backbiting is more representative of the truth than the supportive sisterhood displayed here. One pro-lesbian outburst apart, the film doesn’t really have an edge to speak of; the observation that contestants all say they want world peace is hardly a shattering revelation.
Nonetheless, Miss Congeniality gets the important bit right: it’s funny. Bullock and Caine have a field day, but the laughs are spread out nicely between the cast (when Gracie jumps on a crowd member because he’s packing a weapon, Miss Morningside responds ’This is Texas. Everybody has a gun. My florist has a gun.’) You won’t know anything coming out of the movie that you didn’t know going in, but chances are you’ll have a pretty good time anyway.