Eye of the Beholder

Sandra Bullock is transformed into a pageant beauty in the suitably amiable Miss Congeniality.

Miss Congeniality
Bullock as agent Gracie Hart.
Bullock as agent Gracie Hart.
In Hollywood, all it takes is one big hit. Sandra Bullock's ticket to stardom was the 1994 sleeper Speed, a rip-roaring action/crime thriller that elevated co-star Keanu Reeves to similar megawatt status. With her cute girl-next-door looks and ingratiating physical klutziness, Bullock established an instant rapport with audiences. That perception of adorableness was further enhanced by her next two pictures, While You Were Sleeping and, to a lesser extent, The Net, and helped her to weather subsequent, less successful fare such as Speed 2: Cruise Control, Hope Floats, and Forces of Nature, to name just a few. Miss Congeniality won't catapult Bullock back on top, but it does provide a forum for the actress to showcase her gift for comedy.

The film, written by Marc Lawrence, Katie Ford, and Caryn Lucas, and directed by Daniel Petrie (Grumpy Old Men, My Favorite Martian), finds Bullock playing FBI special agent Gracie Hart, who goes undercover as a contestant at the Miss United States Beauty Pageant in a desperate bid to identify and stop a crazed terrorist, who has threatened to disrupt the televised proceedings. The terrorist has already left a trail of blood and carnage across the nation, so his threats must be taken seriously.

The undercover operation is headed by agent Eric Matthews (Benjamin Bratt), who realizes the superhuman effort that will be required to transform the slovenly, decidedly unfeminine Gracie into a believable beauty queen. Enter pageant consultant Victor Melling (a very fey Michael Caine), whose reputation as a dictatorial taskmaster precedes him. He becomes Henry Higgins to Gracie's Eliza Doolittle.

Aimed at a general, rather undemanding audience, Miss Congeniality is a -- yes, congenial -- comedy, stitched together with amusing but predictable pratfalls and antics (Gracie pulls a seemingly never-ending arsenal of weapons out from under her evening gown; she is constantly tripping in the unfamiliar high heels she must wear) and a few laugh-out-loud lines. As always, Bullock is enormously watchable. Bratt proves a surprisingly bland presence on screen, but then, he isn't given very much to do. Candice Bergen and William Shatner seem to be having fun playing their agreeably exaggerated characters -- she a former beauty queen who now runs the competition he the pageant's master of ceremonies (think Bert Parks).

The film is not intended as a send-up of Miss America-style beauty pageants, but rather as a comedy that happens to use that rarefied -- and easy to poke fun at -- world as its backdrop. Certainly, the milieu is played for laughs, but it's all good clean fun -- no nasty jabs. The feminist Gracie expects the other contestants to be a bunch of airheads -- and while, for all intents and purposes, they are, they aren't the total bimbos she had anticipated. Actually, they are -- but the film glosses over that, making Gracie appreciate them for the genuine friendship they offer her. It's the first time in her life she has had girlfriends.

There is a conspicuous absence of boyfriends on the horizon, too, and one of the cutest scenes in the film suggests why. Gracie, around age 10, sits in a school playground reading Nancy Drew. When a bully punches out the boy she likes, Gracie jumps to the wimp's defense -- not a good way to win boyfriends, as it turns out. It's a problem that dogs Gracie her whole life. She has come to accept it; her all-work, no-play approach is a direct result of having no other options in her social life.

Bullock is one of a handful of female stars today who have a real flair for comedy; others include Cameron Diaz, Rene Zellweger, and Tea Leoni. Unfortunately, Bullock's vehicles aren't as well-written as theirs (Being John Malkovich, There's Something About Mary, Nurse Betty, Flirting With Disaster). Miss Congeniality has something of a TV ring to it (the writers are best known for their television work), but it still has many charming moments and a couple of uproarious ones, most of them courtesy of Bullock. Maybe with all four of these actresses working today, Hollywood can return to the glory days when Carole Lombard, Irene Dunne, and Katharine Hepburn ruled the big screen. It's just a thought.

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