Of all the working actresses today endowed with the ability to open a movie based on their own star power, Sandra Bullock is perhaps the one whose characters share most in common with the average woman. She tends to play women who are smart but sometimes klutzy, girls more interested in trying to get to work than get the guy, the chick who you could actually picture yourself being if you could lose that extra ten pounds. Unlike the relentlessness of Julia Roberts’ always present smile or the austerity of Gwenyth Paltrow’s Spence-educated demeanor, Bullock is the women who sits somewhere between the theater seats and the movie screen in a place where the female population can enjoy a comedic romp through an average chick’s unusual predicament.
“Miss Congeniality” sets out to take its audience on that classic Bullock trip by offering up the standard Cinderella-esque tale of a girl who undergoes a transformation, gets the job done, and manages to land the bohunk of her dreams at the same time. When we first meet Gracie Hart, she’s a young girl out on the playground, a tomboy in braids beating up a boy for beating up another boy. Needless to say, she’s one tough cookie. When we meet Gracie next as a grown up, she’s a Special Agent for the FBI, employing the same type of gutsy maneuvers to the world of criminals while on the beat. But Gracie’s great flaw is she’s all brawn and no beauty, sporting no makeup, hairstyle, or miniskirt. Can you smell the Fashion Emergency crew around the corner?
As it happens, the Feds are after a man something not unlike the Unabomber, called The Citizen, and he appears to be planning his next big attack at the sacred “Miss United States Pageant.” Because beauty queens should never die unnecessarily, the FBI decides to send an agent into the pageant as an undercover mole to find the bad guy and protect the ladies from an unsightly assassination. Too bad the biggest babe in the FBI is currently pregnant. As a joke, Gracie’s photo ends up on a computer transposed into a bathing suit and the mission’s boss, Eric Matthews (Benjamin Bratt), starts thinking that maybe this butch could go femme.
Enter Michæl Caine to help. Caine appears as Victor Melling, a fallen but masterful makeover king, who’s also a bit of a queen, capable of turning even a dog like Gracie into a cute puppy. Women love transformation scenes–existing, as women do, as something like chronic transvestites inside their own culturally enforced feminine identity–and Miss Congeniality’s makeover madness gives one of the movie’s better moments. With enough hair dye, laminated nails, and bikini-waxing, Special Agent Gracie becomes a beauty on a mission to save the world. But, as Gracie goes behind the scenes at the pageant, she also learns pretty may be nice, but learning to be nice is pretty important too.
At the pageant, William Shatner adds laughs as Stan Fields, the Wayne Newton-like M.C., Candice Bergen throws in some sass as Kathy Morningside, the head of the pageant with a closet-bitch inside, and Heather Burns is hilarious as Cheryl, the intellectually challenged Miss Rhode Island who may or may not have a secret. As Gracie goes through the paces to learn being perfect inside and out, the chase for the Beautybomber heats up. And when the big night comes everything rises to its crashing conclusion. Plus, for extra bonus points with the ladies, Miss Congeniality ultimately also offers Mr. Bratt all wet in a pool with no shirt on along the way.
While there’s nothing patently immoral or inherently wrong with movies for women about makeup and beauty pageants, Bullock just can’t save Miss Congeniality from the underinspired directing of Donald Petrie (Grumpy Old Men) or sometimes shaky script from Marc Lawrence (Forces of Nature). What the movie understands least is the challenge it poses for itself by creating a central female character who is, for much of the film, unlikable. For the majority of the movie, Gracie isn’t just unattractive outside, she’s unattractive on the inside, and the whole point of Makeover Movies is you’re supposed to want to identify with Cinderella. Miss Congeniality isn’t awful, but it isn’t utterly entertaining or incredibly original either, it’s just right in the middle.