Friday, March 19, 2010

Double Feature: The Miss Congeniality Saga

During the early 2000s, Sandra Bullock starred two movies as Gracie Hart, an FBI agent who went undercover as a beauty queen. Like the "Speed" movies in the 1990s, Sandra Bullock starred in one excellent film and then signed up for a sequel that was nowhere near as good. In this post, I review both of the "Miss Congeniality" films.

Miss Congeniality (2000)
Starring: Sandra Bullock, Benjamin Bratt, Michael Cain, Heather Burns, and William Shatner
Director: Donald Petrie
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

When an unknown madman threatens a beauty pagent, life-long tomboy FBI Agent Gracie Hart (Bullock) must master all the feminine graces and go undercover as a pageant participant to unmask the killer.

"Miss Congeniality" is a funny fish-out-of-water comedy, with the standard theme of characters who have their preconceived notions of each other (and even themselves) challenged and emerge at the end of the story having learned valuable lessons and gained a deeper understanding of themselves and everyone around them.

In the case of Gracie, she learns to embrace a part of herself that she's denied since she was a girl, and she learns to respect the hopes and dreams of those who might not want the same things she does. It's actually a rather touching transformation that the character undergoes, and it's a testament to Bullock's acting ability that Gracie comes across like a three-dimensional character in a movie that is otherwise populated with outrageous stereotypes and excuses for slapstick comedy. (And speaking of slap-stick, Bullock also displays a great talent for physical comedy in this film.)

Although Bullock is definately the star of the film, she is ably assisted by her co-stars and supporting players, all of whom put in excellent comedic performances (with the exception of Benjamin Bratt, who is the films only straight man... but he fills that role admirable). Bergen and Shatner are particularly fun as a pair of aging pageant organizers, and Caine is fantastic as the beauty expert tapped by the FBI to infuse Gracie with some grace.

"Miss Congeniality" is definately a comedy that's worth seeing.

Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous (2005)
Starring: Sandra Bullock, Regina King, Enrique Murciano, William Shatner, and Heather Burns
Director: John Pasquin
Rating: Four of Ten Stars

In "Miss Congeniality 2", Gracie Hart (Bullock), too famous for fieldwork after her adventure with the beauty pageant, and with slightly more refined manners, is tapped to be the FBI's "celebrity face". With her romantic life coming unglued for reasons she can't understand, she throws herself completely into the life of an empty-headed PR flack. But then two of the friends she made during the pageant caper (Shatner and Burns) are kidnapped, so she flies to Las Vegas in an unauthorized attempt to rescue them.

As much as I loved "Miss Congeniality", I find very little to recommend the sequel. The biggest problem is that everything that made Gracie Hart a likable and sympathetic character in the first film are absent for most of the sequel, because she spends most of the story playing at being someone she is not. It doesn't help matters that her new partner (King) is just plain obnoxious and completely devoid of any interesting character qualities.

With Bullock playing someone who is playing a lame character, we're left with the supporting cast for most of the laughs in the movie. Shatner and Burns (who spend most of the film tied up in a little shack) are very, very funny, and they're worth two of the tomatoes I gave the film. Likewise, Murchiano (best known for deadpan, ultra-serious performances on the crime drama "Without A Trace"), as a nebbish FBI Agent who learns to stand up for himself once Gracie rediscovers who she is, displays some fine comedic talent. However, everyone has limited material to work with, as the story is very flimsy.

I think all the performers do the best with what they have to work with, but it just isn't enough. The film has no heart, but just feels like a string of badly told, fairly tired jokes. Worse, Bullock and the Gracie Hart character are so badly wasted that this film almost makes one forget what was so charming and fun about the original "Miss Congeniality."

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