SANDRA BULLOCK has starred in some really awful movies, but somehow she has managed to maintain a decent reputation. Maybe it's because she's so good at persuading us to like her. Even when she appears in films that seem to have been scraped from the depths of the romantic-comedy sewer ("Forces of Nature," "Two Weeks Notice," "While You Were Sleeping," I could go on), her intelligent, everywoman charm manages to win over audiences in spite of preposterous plotlines and banal dialogue.
Unfortunately, that's not the case with "Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous." Even Bullock's brand of gutsy goofiness can't save this glaringly unfunny sequel to 2000's "Miss Congeniality," itself a pretty laughless affair about a tomboyish, crude FBI agent who gets an Eliza Doolittle-style makeover so she can go undercover as a beauty pageant contestant.
"Congeniality 2," amazingly, attempts to repeat much of that formulaic structure, just in case we missed some of the nuances the last time around. The story picks up three weeks after the pageant and finds Gracie Hart (Bullock, who's also a co-producer) struggling with field-agent work thanks to her newfound fame as the former Miss New Jersey. Too recognizable to engage in covert ops, Gracie is forced to become "the new face of the FBI," essentially an attractive spokes-model for the bureau. And you know what the words "attractive spokes-model" mean: Time for another makeover! (Apparently the one Michael Caine gave her three weeks earlier just didn't stick.)
Flash-forward 10 months and suddenly Gracie has become a best-selling author and a mascara-wearing, Chanel handbag-carrying diva who struts around with a posse of stylists and can't walk two feet without being begged for her autograph. This, by the way, happens to authors of nonfiction books all the time. Gracie also has a rage-filled new partner named Sam Fuller, played by Regina King, an actress whose name is practically synonymous with feisty. The two can barely stand to be in each other's presence so, naturally, they're assigned to go to Las Vegas, where Miss United States (Heather Burns) and pageant emcee Stan Fields (William Shatner) have been kidnapped.
Gracie is supposed to handle press conferences while Sam acts as her bodyguard, but the plucky agents start believing they can solve this crime faster than the local feds. And if you think solving the crime means they eventually have to participate in a musical number at a drag queen show, allow me to congratulate you. You're the winner of this week's Guess the Indescribably Inane Plot Development Contest. Your prize -- a tube of "Miss Congeniality 2" lip gloss and a contract to write the screenplay for "Miss Congeniality 3: Gracie Under Pressure" -- is in the mail.
The first "Miss Congeniality" was a pretty stupid movie, but at least it was elevated by a strong cast, including Benjamin Bratt, Caine and Candice Bergen. Since those actors wisely opted not to return, "Fabulous" is filled instead with surrogate performers. Instead of Bratt as a dark and handsome agent, we get Enrique Murciano. And rather than Caine in the role of wisecracking stylist, Diedrich Bader of "The Drew Carey Show" steps up to the primping plate as the overflowingly fey Joel. (This goes without saying, but Caine managed to avoid the pratfalls of such a persona and play it with a little dignity. Bader takes the easy road to Gay Stereotype Town: He's all limp wrists and lame, vaguely saucy double entendres.)
As for the self-absorbed, beauty-obsessed, control freak character once occupied by Bergen, that part goes, oddly, to Bullock. For much of the movie, her character is so infuriatingly obnoxious, it's impossible to be on her side. Even though she eventually sees the error of her ways -- that's no plot spoiler, the title tells you she's still supposed to be congenial, for Pete's sake -- it comes too late. The makers of "Miss Congeniality 2" have violated the cardinal rule of Sandra Bullock cinema. They turned her into someone unlikable.
MISS CONGENIALITY 2: ARMED AND FABULOUS (PG-13, 107 minutes) -- Contains sex-related humor. Area theaters.