Wednesday, January 3, 2001

Miss Congeniality

Posted By on Wed, Jan 3, 2001 at 12:00 AM

Michael Caine, Sandra Bullock and Benjamin Brat
  • Michael Caine, Sandra Bullock and Benjamin Brat

Sandra Bullock is so lively and so funny so often in Miss Congeniality that you wish she could display her comedy talents in a better film. But producer Bullock chose this mediocre movie. Why?

Perhaps it’s the appealing fiction of instant female camaraderie during competition (the venomous beauty pageant participants of Drop Dead Gorgeous or the sublime Smile have been consciously defanged here). With the exception of Practical Magic, most of Bullock’s movies have been testosterone-heavy affairs where she’s been the sole or dominant female. Maybe she wanted to stretch her comedic wings in an environment which says it’s OK to be a girl in a man’s world.

FBI agent Gracie Hart (Bullock) has, from an early age, been forced to choose between power and beauty, between being seen as an equal in a man’s profession or being viewed as a woman, an object to be gazed upon and judged by physical attributes. With her aggressive stance, slovenly habits and Annie Hall-ish menswear, Gracie is surprised when she’s chosen to infiltrate the Miss United States competition as a contestant, aided by defrocked pageant guru Victor Melling (Michael Caine in a lovely, subtly heartbreaking performance), and under the watchful — and scornful — eye of this pageant’s fiercely protective matriarch, former beauty queen Kathy Morningside (Candice Bergen as the anti-Murphy Brown).

Gracie realizes the women she once dismissed as bimbos are using their attributes (inherent attractiveness fused with the confidence to be judged wearing only a bathing suit and high heels) to gain what they want (scholarship prize money and a forum for their ideas). These would-be rivals quite unexpectedly turn out to be the strongest support group Gracie’s ever had.

So is Bullock anxious to create a female-friendly film or make a comedy where the usual goal of getting the guy (an often smarmy Benjamin Brat) is an afterthought? Miss Congeniality supports both (along with world peace).

Maybe next time a confident Bullock will trade in by-the-numbers director Donald Petrie (Mystic Pizza) and cliche-dependant screenwriter Marc Lawrence (Forces of Nature) for filmmakers not afraid to showcase all her goofy charm.

E-mail Serena Donadoni at letters@metrotimes.com.

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