She snorts when she laughs.
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She chews food with her mouth open.
She wears ugly shoes and wouldn’t recognize a tube of lipstick if it came up and smacked her in the mouth.
Yes, ladies and gentlemen, this is America’s Sweetheart. No, not Julia Roberts—the other sweet Girl-Next-Door, Sandra Bullock. As mannish FBI agent Gracie Hart in Miss Congeniality, Miss Bullock more than lives up to her last name—she adopts a walk and talk that’s positively cow-like. And she’s never been funnier.
One could only wish that the movie lived up to her risky, frisky energy. Directed without a trace of inspiration by Donald Petrie, Miss Congeniality hobbles like a beauty pageant contestant limping down the runway on one broken high-heel.
By the way, that’s exactly what Gracie Hart does when she’s assigned by her boss to go undercover at the Miss United States pageant which the bureau believes will be the next target of a serial bomber called the Citizen. With fellow-partner (and potential love-interest) Eric Matthews (Benjamin Bratt, who is, of course, dating the other American Sweetheart in real life), the “Dirty Harriet” heads for sash-and-crown territory. First, there’s the obligatory transformation scene, complete with music-video montage, where Gracie goes from ugly duckling to coiffed swan, courtesy of pageant consultant Victor Melling (a deliciously swishy Michael Caine). The makeover is actually fun to watch, thanks to Caine’s dry turn as “a crazed perfectionist who once harangued a contestant to within an inch of insanity.”
For a while, it looks like Miss Congeniality is actually going to be a memorable comedy. The team of writers (Marc Lawrence, Katie Ford and Caryn Lucas) provides the cast the chance to snap off some decent wisecracks (One is: “Entering Barbietown,” Gracie murmurs into her earpiece as she steps into a room full of bubble-headed contestants. Another is: the faux porno flick title Arm-a-Get-It-On, which was not directed by Michael Bay). But my generous smile soon faded as the clichés started to pile up like Big Hair on Miss Texas.
Nothing new here, folks. Move along. Will there be swan-out-of-water scenes once the re-named Gracie Lou Freebush (Freebush? Yoiks!) starts mingling with the other contestants? Will there be “I’m okay, you’re okay” girl-bonding scenes, complete with pizza and lite beer? Will there be the need for Gracie to make a life-saving, slow-motion tackle to defuse the bomb during the climax? You bet your tiara—and there’s plenty more blasé plot tricks where those came from.
The one true surprise of Miss Congeniality is the fact that William Shatner (as the master of ceremonies) is actually bearable, if not occasionally funny; while Candice Bergen (as the pageant director) is not. When Miss Bergen wasn’t looking, someone stole Murphy Brown’s acerbic wit and replaced her with a lead-coated wooden mannequin. I’d expect that from Benjamin “No Pulse” Bratt, but not the normally-funny Bergen. Harrumph…She must have asphyxiated on all that hairspray.
But let’s face it, no one watches Miss Congeniality for the supporting cast. This is all about Bullock (who also produced the movie). She seems to have recovered from a slump that required her to wander through a comedic wasteland for the past five years—a period of time which includes clunkers like Speed 2, Practical Magic, Forces of Nature and Gun Shy (among many others). Here, she breaks out of the shrink wrap which was suffocating her talent. Her zany, loony ineptitude is almost worthy of being mentioned in the same sentence as Carole Lombard, Jean Harlow and Lucille Ball—classic comediennes who excelled at overcoming one-heeled movies.
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