Miss Congeniality

Back in the heyday of the studio system, when MGM, Warner Brothers, and RKO were cranking out movies weekly, it was common to hear moviegoers talking about having seen "The new (name of star here) picture." What the title, plot or setting was or who else appeared in it hardly mattered – they’d seen the latest offering from their favorite movie idol. The best way to describe Miss Congeniality is that it’s very much "The new Sandra Bullock picture" – she even produced it. Rabid fans of Ms. Bullock who have been waiting with bated breath since 28 Days will no doubt enjoy this latest chance to see her work her earnest, perky smile and home-grown good looks, but anyone else will find it very predictable and rather tepid.

In this latest plagiarism of The Ugly Duckling and Pygmalion, there’s a serial terrorist on the loose. Someone known only as "The Citizen" has perpetrated a string of bombings, and the New York FBI office receives a cryptic cut-and-paste letter that appears to indicate that his next target will be the Miss United States Pageant. It’s decided that someone will go undercover at the pageant to sniff out the perp. That someone is Special Agent Gracie Hart (Bullock) – a street-tough tomboy who lives alone, eats microwave meals for one and can’t get a date. Sandra Bullock. Can’t get a date. Riiiight. In best Cop Shop Stereotype fashion, Hart’s already on the outs with her boss (Ernie Hudson), who’s assigned her to the infamous "desk job" for screwing up on her previous undercover assignment. There’s also a conveniently hunky – and apparently blind – co-worker (Benjamin Bratt) who’s Hart’s critic and foil, constantly belittling her for her lack of femininity and sex appeal.

As high school geometry teachers are prone to say, the rest implicitly follows from here. The creative team of director Donald Petrie and screenwriters Marc Lawrence and Katie Ford don’t have much of a prior pedigree, and they do little to earn one with this effort. Petrie made the quirkily enjoyable Mystic Pizza more than a decade ago but has since been responsible for such lifeless and lightweight bombs as Richie Rich and My Favorite Martian. Lawrence deserves a special place in Remake Hell for his recent script for Out-of-Towners (where he did the impossible – make John Cleese dull) and his story here dutifully follows each cliche to its painfully obvious conclusion.

There are a few periodic flashes of life, thanks to Michael Caine’s performance as the famed beauty pageant consultant that The Bureau hires to transform Hart from nebbish to knockout. William Shatner and Candice Bergen also turn in self-deprecating and randomly clever appearances as the egotistical powers behind the pageant. But the center of this film’s universe is undeniably Bullock, and she gives an absolute placebo of a performance – her Gracie Hart is generic Sandra Bullock with horn-rimmed glasses and a badge. At this stage of her career Bullock is an established star, commanding a high salary and "points", but she’s apparently content to go through the motions and coast on a large dose of cuteness once again.

A standard part of all beauty pageants is The Interview, where contestants are often asked, "If you could have one wish, what would it be?" Most members of the Miss Congeniality audience will likely reply: "To have chosen a different theater."

– Bob Aulert