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MISS CONGENIALITY

by: James Berardinelli

If there were lingering doubts that the time has come to write an obituary for Sandra Bullock's days as a leading lady, Miss Congeniality should dispel them. Trailing in the wake of a string of duds, the most recent of which were the un-releasable Gun Shy and the not-much-better 28 Days, Miss Congeniality marks the latest wrong step in a career that once burned brightly. But the days of Speed and While You Were Sleeping are long past. Bullock must bear the responsibility for Miss Congeniality's failure - not only is she the star, but she's the producer, as well. It's impossible to absolve someone when they wear those hats - some of the disapprobation goes to director Donald Petrie (Grumpy Old Men), but the lion's portion is reserved for Bullock.

Miss Congeniality introduces us to Gracie Hart (Bullock), a no-nonsense, tomboy FBI agent who's part of a team on the trail of a vicious serial killer who goes by the name of "The Citizen." In order to track her quarry, she must go undercover as Miss New Jersey in the annual Miss United States beauty pageant, held in San Antonio, Texas. So, after convincing the pair who run the pageant, Kathy Morningside (Candice Bergen) and her faithful sidekick, Stan (William Shatner), that her participation is warranted, Gracie starts getting to know her co-contestants while keeping the FBI team leader, Eric Matthews (Benjamin Bratt), informed of the status of her investigation. Meanwhile, beauty contest consultant Vic Melling (Michael Caine) is brought in to transform Gracie into a picture of elegance and grace - a task he initially deems impossible.

Even in peak form, Bullock has never been regarded a great actress, and her occasional forays into dramatic material have confirmed this perception. However, she is normally charismatic and appealing - qualities that are inexplicably absent in her portrayal of Gracie, Miss Congeniality's protagonist. Here, she is dull and lifeless, although no more so than her male co-star, Benjamin Bratt (giving indications that he's following in David Caruso's footsteps on the pathway from TV stardom into motion picture oblivion), who looks like he's appearing in a Steven Seagal act-alike contest. Julia Roberts must see something in this guy in real life that doesn't show up on the screen. The romantic pairing of Bullock and Bratt turns out to be a horrible mistake. They fizzle when they should sizzle and have all the zing of carbonated water gone flat. Fortunately, supporting players like Michael Caine and William Shatner are on hand to liven things up. In addition to having nearly every amusing line dished out by the lame and predictable script, Caine seems to be enjoying himself as a gay beauty contest consultant. And William Shatner, who looks more like the Pillsbury Dough Boy than Captain Kirk, offers an amusing send-up of himself crossed with Burt Parks.

The existence of Beautiful saves Miss Congeniality from being the worst beauty contest movie of the year, but if ever a statement could be accused of damning with faint praise, that's it. This film is a mess - it can't make up its mind whether it wants to be a drama, a comedy, or an action movie. At times, it descends into slapstick (as when Gracie teaches the art of self-defense by abusing Eric), but, more often than not, it slips into overt sentimentality. In fact, during those scenes when Michael Caine is not around, the movie is in constant danger of wallowing in mawkishness. Miss Congeniality also steals shamelessly from Pygmalion (Vic making over Gracie from an ugly duckling cop into a stunning, statuesque beauty), but truncates the process to the point where it loses its appeal. Plus, there are a few perfunctory action sequences - but these have all the energy of a dead battery. And haven't we seen enough beauty contest bashing in the past few years? Maybe Christopher

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