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There was a running joke for a while that horror writer Stephen King could publish a grocery list and it would become a best seller. That’s a compliment to the author’s prolific skill and writing talents, but also as to how willing his fans are to read anything he puts to paper. A few actors and actresses have this gift as well, able to not only survive projects that would ruin a lesser performer’s career, but somehow make a success out of them. Sandra Bullock is so good at making schlocky films watchable and still maintain incredible star power, she might as well be called Teflon Bullock.
Miss Congeniality is one such film, a standard transformation movie where a woman (typically) begins the movie as a frumpy, uncouth, undignified, unattractive type and by the film’s end blossoms into a raving beauty, both inside and out. It’s a tired old trope but gets dusted off and put on screen pretty regularly and audiences tend to give them a pass, simply because they often tickle the right fancy, the same way a slice of chocolate cake just makes everything feel right in the world if only for a few moments. What makes this cake so good is that it’s Bullock at the top of her game, a radiant, funny, indescribably charming actress with star wattage that blinds us to the clichés and predictability of the film’s actual plot. Mostly.
Bullock plays Gracie Hart, a tough as nails, no-nonsense woman and FBI Special Agent. She doesn’t much care for appearances, rather putting her energies to being the best she can be in service to the government. Her partner is Special Agent Eric Matthews (Benjamin Bratt), a handsome, skilled agent but not as capable as Hart. When they are given the responsibility to stop the bomb threat at the 75th annual pageant in San Antonio, Texas, Hart concocts a plan to put an agent undercover in the show as a contestant. After the crew desperately try to find someone on the team who could pass as a model using a dress-up children’s computer program, they realize that Gracie is the best fit. There’s a swan under that mess somewhere.
They give her to beauty pageant coach Victor Melling (Michael Caine), hoping he has the magic to transform the less than graceful Gracie into a runway star. She eventually gets the hang of it, is added to the ceremony as Miss New Jersey and joins the other women in the pre-show activities, even making a number of friends. Now all she has to do it figure out where the threat comes from and why.
That starts with a few key suspects, including former pageant winner Kathy Morningside (Candice Bergen), who is the current competition director, and tainted with corruption. There is also the long-running show Emcee, Stan Fields (William Shatner), who, like Morningside, will be getting replaced by younger talents and has plenty of motive. With Matthews on the outside and Hart on the inside, the hunt is one and the clock is ticking.
Directed by Donald Petrie, Miss Congeniality is a fairly successful mix of comedy and suspense though neither are particularly aiming for the sky. Petrie has made a career out of safe, easy-to-digest films that don’t exactly challenge the viewer. That’s not all bad, and many have been fun, if not innocuous. Here, he keeps things fairly level and wisely gives wide berth for his lead to fill up the screen with that infectious smile and positive attitude. That’s seems like a placating afterthought, but is anything but. Bullock is so wound up with joy, it’s like watching kinetic energy. With a smile.
It would be easy to dismiss some of that Bullock-ness to plain old charm, but watching this movie carefully, it’s a real delight to see what amounts to some great talent shine through in an otherwise messy script. Bullock is a natural and commands attention as a physical comedienne the same way the greats, such as Lucile Ball or Carol Burnett do. Or even Charlie Chaplin. Her timing, commitment, and execution are all flawless.
Take the now iconic moment when she emerges from the airport hanger with a phalanx of makeup artists and groomers at her side with Melling leading the way. The last time Matthews saw her, she was a frizzy-haired, homely fellow agent. When she breaks from the shadows, she is wearing a one-piece, ultra-skin-tight body hugging dress, her hair is perfect, and she shines like a supermodel. She’s jaw-droppingly beautiful, and she moves with startling grace and raw sexiness toward her partner. She’s a changed woman. But there is still good ol’ Gracie Hart in there, and just when it looks like she’s got this model thing down, she stumbles and drops. She pops right back up and assures them she’s got this and continues on. We all feel a little warmth inside.
Talk about a defining moment. Bullock owns this from start to finish and I’m willing to bet not many could pull this off. Bullock already has this girl-next-door quality that makes her so refreshing to watch, but to think of her as a sexy model-type is something few really considered. That she pulls it of so effectively is one thing, but to make it funny while still being sexy is another. It’s a great little moment of high-level acting that might not be thought of as such, but truly is. She wins us all in this moment because she is is the woman she can be while still the woman she is. We love her for it.
While Miss Congeniality is not a great movie, it has some fun with the silliness and seriousness of pageants, never disrespecting the hard-working women invested in the business but clearly on the side of moving in a new direction. The plot is inconsequential and matters little as it’s not at all about a bomb threat but rather the relationships. Bullock is surrounded by some terrific performances as well, with Caine, Bergen, and Shatner really bringing some good laughs. It’s all harmless fun. But made memorable by Bullock who wholly saves this film and reveals just how special she truly is.