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'Miss Congeniality' Sequel Flunks the Talent Competition

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 24, 2005; Page C04

In "Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous," 40-year-old Sandra Bullock proves to be a nimble navigator of the treacherous terrain that stretches between dewy ingenue and Miss Daisy, exuding freshness and easygoing glamour that are, in the actress's signature fashion, utterly unforced.

Would that it were true for the movie, which tediously reprises one of the actress's most successful roles. Like its predecessor, "Miss Congeniality 2" is by turns a predictable and outlandishly contrived take on the Pygmalion myth, one that finds Bullock once again snorting, mugging and tripping her way from tomboy to swan. ("Miss Congeniality 2" appears in theaters a day earlier than the usual Friday, suggesting that it might well come up a dollar short compared with this weekend's similarly pitched comedies, "D.E.B.S." and "Guess Who.") It's a measure of Bullock's unshakable likability that, after making a career of mostly by-the-numbers vehicles like this one, she again emerges with her girl-next-door appeal intact.

Agent Gracie goes to Las Vegas: Sandra Bullock, right -- now teamed with Diedrich Bader, left, and Regina King -- stars in "Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous." (Frank Masi -- Smpsp / Warner Bros.)

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"Miss Congeniality 2" catches up with FBI Agent Gracie Hart (Bullock) a scant three weeks after her heroics at a national beauty pageant. As "Miss Congeniality 2" opens, Gracie is enduring some good-natured ribbing from her undercover colleagues, but it soon becomes clear that her newfound fame is going to make her a liability during operations. Her boss asks her to become the bureau's spokeswoman, putting her in the care of a (what else?) gay stylist and assigning a feisty new agent named Sam Fuller (Regina King) to be her bodyguard.

No one who knows and loves the down-to-earth, beer-guzzling Gracie Hart will believe how quickly this tough-talking Eliza Doolittle is transformed into a superficial, looks-obsessed airhead. What's more, a high-profile kidnapping that unfolds during Gracie's publicity tour is about as substantial as a typical "Scooby-Doo" episode. The scheme serves merely as the rickety scaffolding on which to pile a series of plodding plot twists, calling on Gracie to go undercover as a leathery octogenarian and a Las Vegas drag queen, and chase Dolly Parton through a casino in perilously high heels.

But a trifling issue like story is surely beside the point of this franchise, which exists primarily to provide amiable if uninspiring family comedy and a fat paycheck for Bullock (who is a producer of the series). Indeed, the most disappointing thing about "Miss Congeniality 2" isn't its tepid, workmanlike humor or humdrum production values, which are entirely to be expected, but the absences of some of the first movie's best supporting players. The scrumptious Benjamin Bratt has been sidelined (providing what is supposed to be a dramatic subplot), and Michael Caine's Victor Melling, the Henry Higgins behind Gracie's triumph at the Miss United States pageant, has been replaced by an unfunny Carson Kressley manqué named Joel (Diedrich Bader).

Indeed, of all the players, including Bullock, it's the dependably peppery King who provides the energy otherwise lacking in "Miss Congeniality 2." The scene-stealing actress who delivered such memorable turns in "Jerry Maguire" and the recent "Ray" does what she's best at -- turning a smile into a humorous snarl -- to create genuine sparks with Bullock. Although it's tempting to wonder what this natural comic duo might do with a truly original script and an imaginative director, "Miss Congeniality 2" raises an even more urgent question: Isn't it time to say good night, Gracie?

Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous (109 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for sex-related humor.

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