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Miss Congeniality

movie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: Miss Congeniality

Starring: Sandra Bullock, Candice Bergen
Director: Donald Petrie
Rated: PG-13
RunTime: 118 Minutes
Release Date: December 2000
Genre: Comedy

*Also starring: Heather Burns, Ernie Hudson, John DiResta, Melissa Desousa, Benjamin Bratt, Michael Caine, William Shatner

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

Beauty pageants are so silly that their very existence could make one think that their producers are poking fun. They're an ideal target for lampooning by the movie industry, whose best shot in that area is Michael Ritchie's 1975 work, "Smile"- -which dealt with the behind-the-scenes activity at a California "Young America Miss" pageant which Ritchie presents as a symbol of American middle-class emptiness. "Miss Congeniality" doesn't come close in quality to that gem, partly because the genre is overdone and somewhat because Donald Petrie's film ultimately sentimentalizes the industry by pointing out its benefits--at least to the contestants and their families and cheerleaders. Ritchie's aim appears to use Marc Lawrence, Katie Ford and Caryn Lucas's screenplay--based on Lawrence's story--to showcase Sandra Bullock's talents in the role of an FBI officer assigned as an undercover agent at the San Antonio contest, which is presumed to be a target for mysterious terrorists who challenges the FBI to find them by sending cryptic notes.

Fresh from disappointing roles in Betty Thomas's "28 Days" shown earlier this year (about an alcoholic writer who pratfalls at a wedding while drunk) and Bronwen Hughes's "Forces of Nature" (a thin story about an unpredictable woman traveling with a stranger by land after their plane crashes), Bullock scores at least moderately well this time around. Despite taking two or three cascades to the ground too many (bound to evoke laughs nonetheless by fans of physical humor), she turns in a credible role thanks to a solid, amusing script with whodunit dimensions and director Petrie's skill with comic timing.

The story opens on a scene unrelated to the remainder of the story except to show the clumsiness and independent spirit of FBI Agent Gracie Hart (Sandra Bullock)--who violates the rules by giving a mobster a Heimlich maneuver and thereby puts another agent's life in danger. Threatened with a hearing by a review board, she is assigned as to undercover work as a contestant in a Texas beauty pageant which is presmed to be the target of a terrorist's evil plans. Petrie mines the obvious comic territory: a klutzy woman whose skill in martial arts and generally masculine endeavors who has cared nothing about her personal appearance is forced to accept manicures, pedicures, bikini waxes, and lessons in carrying herself gracefully--the last performed by none other than Michael Caine in the role of beauty consultant Victor Melling.

Much of the glee is evoked from the conflict of gamin and guide, each with a wholly distinct agenda, as Agent Hart is molded Pygmalion-style from kung-fu practitioner to a comely contestant. The two become as testy with each other as Eliza Doolittle with Henry Higgins: when Gracie insists that she can perform an exercise for the talent show that she took up when she first learned how to ride a bike, Melling replies, "You will NOT perform sex on the stage."

While the growing romance between Gracie Hart and her assistant, Eric Matthews (Benjamin Bratt) is the least convincing aspect of the story, Petrie gets credible work from a smashing-looking Candice Bergen as Kathy Moringside, a former beauty queen with twenty years' experience as host, and from Star Trek's William Shatner in a self-mocking role as co-host.

"Miss Congeniality" does not pretend to be more than a sitcom, but with its swift banter, its credible use of a whodunit element, and some good ensemble work by the swim-suited representatives of several American states, you could do a lot worse during the holiday season than this sparkling, congenial tale.

Copyright 2000 Harvey Karten

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