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A Plot as Trite as the Shows It's Jeering At

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 22, 2000


    'Miss Congeniality' Sandra Bullock becomes a beauty pageant babe in "Miss Congeniality."
Last week Mel Gibson got in touch with his womanly side in "What Women Want." This week Sandra Bullock follows suit in "Miss Congeniality," a rinky-dink comedy that the actress also produced.

Gibson may play a devout misogynist in his gender-bender, but he's decidedly more in touch with his inner gal than is Bullock's Gracie Hart, a hoydenish FBI agent badly in need of a makeover. The movie, in fact, was inspired by little beyond that staple of women's magazines and afternoon TV.

Gracie reluctantly goes undercover as a beauty contestant, hoping to outfox a mad bomber, but the real suspense is: Will this schlumpy she-man enjoy being a girl?

From the time she was a grade-schooler, as shown in the movie's delightful 1982 prologue, she has believed that the way to a man's heart is a blow to the stomach. Unfortunately, Marc Lawrence's screenplay is never as convincing as this handful of scenes.

For reasons that are never made clear, Gracie, now in her early thirties, continues to express herself combatively, whether in pursuit of a gang of Russian thugs or the affection of Eric, her partner (Benjamin Bratt). She always gets her man, but she never gets her man.

But when her enthusiasm almost costs a colleague his life, her boss (Ernie Hudson) sends her back to desk patrol. In hopes of getting back into his good graces, she agrees to don a sash and parade down the runway in a yucky swimsuit to protect the contestants in the Miss United States pageant, who have been threatened by the terrorist.

With a fey pageant veteran (Michael Caine) as her Pygmalion, Gracie learns to say "yes" instead of "yeah" and to glide when she walks. After a bikini wax, a blow-dry and a day without doughnuts, she emerges, an iron butterfly. Though her male peers are bowled over by the transformation of the tooth-suckin', butt-scratchin' G-woman, the audience is unlikely to be shocked at the miracles of lip gloss.

Gracie repeatedly falls off her high heels and says all the wrong things to her fellow contestants, who are portrayed as baton-twirling, tiara-craving ninnies in favor of world peace. The heroine, however, is surprised to discover that the other women are supportive, especially the endearing, innocent Miss Rhode Island (Heather Burns in the movie's most noteworthy performance).

Bullock makes a nice foil for Burns, which surely was not the dimming star's goal. Caine's effeminate consultant is trite, as is the self-mockery of William Shatner in the role of a has-been performer who emcees the show. Candice Bergen has a thankless part as the pageant's prim, despotic supervisor.

Donald Petrie's desultory direction does nothing to camouflage "Miss Congeniality's" obvious plot or its comic cliches. But to its credit, the movie doesn't promote inner beauty, as have such recent releases as "Drop Dead Gorgeous" and "Beautiful."

Women who don't shave their armpits may applaud the parody of semiprofessional beauties, but if those behind the film industry really meant it, there would be more ugly people starring in movies. Aren't there better targets?

All they're asking for is world peace and, of course, a tiara.

"Miss Congeniality" (119 minutes) is rated PG-13.


Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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