Miss Congeniality

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This movie has William Shatner. In a perfect world, that would be enough of a review right there, and we could go home.

Alas, the world is not yet perfect, as evidenced by the continued proliferation of limp, muddled comedies like “Miss Congeniality.” Remember how everyone loved Sandra Bullock a few years ago? She’s still plenty likable — she’s the major bright spot in this little fiasco — but she’s got to start choosing better scripts. (She produced “Miss Congeniality,” too, which just makes her more culpable.)

Bullock plays Gracie Hart, a slovenly FBI agent with the manners of Homer Simpson who chews with her mouth open and snorts when she laughs. When a terrorist who calls himself The Citizen threatens the upcoming Miss United States pageant (once again, the folks at Miss America are apparently too humorless to let their name be used in a film), cocky Agent Eric Matthews (Benjamin Bratt) asks Gracie to go undercover as a contestant.

Gracie flatly refuses at first, on the grounds that beauty pageants are full of bimbos who set the women’s movement back several decades. She changes her mind, though, when … um, well, for no reason, really. She changes her mind because if she didn’t, the movie would be over before it even started.

She’ll take some work, though, so fey pageant consultant Vic Melling (Michael Caine) is called in to prettify her. With only two days before the pageant, he has to work extremely fast … but he does it! And she’s good to go with just moments to spare.

Gracie infiltrates the pageant pretty well, becoming friends with the contestants and trying to figure out if The Citizen has an insider working the job for him. In the process, she comes to respect the girls and to see the value in beauty pageants.

And there’s the film’s No. 1 problem: It can’t decide if it wants to make fun of beauty pageants or celebrate them. Most of the movie takes potshots at the so-called “scholarship programs,” with standard jokes about all the contestants wanting world peace and throwing up everything they eat. Then, in the last couple reels, all of a sudden these are real people, not just two-dimensional cut-outs, and the plot gets derailed in order to show us a whole bunch of the pageant. What’s the point? That pageants are OK after all? Maybe that’s true, but even if it is, so what?

Also, the plot is extremely questionable. It’s one thing to be far-fetched — we’ll put up with a lot in a broad comedy — but it’s quite another to be so absurd as to render the film utterly unbelievable. The FBI tells the network and the pageant officials that there’s been a bomb threat, but they refuse to cancel the event. That in itself is unlikely, but then there’s the fact that nothing about this danger leaks out to the media or to the contestants.

It’s pretty convenient, too, that Miss New Jersey had to drop out of the pageant just in time for Gracie to take her place under a false name. (And no publicity around that? No media scrutiny on this new woman from out of nowhere who becomes the new Miss New Jersey? Shouldn’t there have been a runner-up who would take the real beauty queen’s place?)

The aforementioned William Shatner gets a few laughs as the fatuous pageant announcer; Candice Bergen, as his high-strung sidekick, does not fare so well. Caine has some amusing lines — “I haven’t seen a walk like that since ‘Jurassic Park,'” he says upon seeing Gracie move — and it’s nice to see him doing something at his level (i.e., mediocre), rather than films that are too amateurish (“Get Carter”) or too hoity-toity (“The Cider House Rules”). Benjamin Bratt stands around in order to be Gracie’s reluctant love interest.

Sandra Bullock herself continues to be affable; in fact, she seems entirely above the mawkish proceedings in the film, like she never fits in with the rest of the cast. If anyone deserves the “Miss Congeniality” award, it’s her. Too bad the movie she’s in doesn’t even rank as a finalist.

C (; PG-13, frequent profanity, mild sexuality, a gunfight.)

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