What To Watch: It’s All In The Timing for ‘Miss Congeniality’ (2000)
A simply comedy makes a mega star out of Sandra Bullock.
Miss Congeniality is a 2000 action comedy about an FBI agent who must go undercover in the Miss United States beauty pageant to prevent a group from bombing the event.
All the way through the 90s, while Julia Roberts and Meg Ryan were redefining the romantic comedy, one actress was quickly bubbling to the surface as the go-to quirky adorable girl with sass and maybe a swift uppercut. That of course is Sandra Bullock, who was in a string of action and light dramatic movies that earned her heaps of praise, even in titles that didn’t fare so well. Unshakeable charms, a broad sense of humor, girl-next-door good looks, and a spit-fire attitude made her an easy girl to like and for a decade, she was getting primed for a big break and with Miss Congeniality, she finally got it. While critics weren’t so kind, the film was a massive hit, raking in millions at the box office and earning Bullock a slew of award nominations. It’s by no means a masterpiece, but it is great fun and well worth revisiting. Let’s take a look.
THE STORY: Directed by Donald Petrie, the film follows tough-as-nails FBI agent Gracie Hart (Bullock), who we learn from the start was always an independent type that didn’t take any crap. Problem is, she got herself into a bit of trouble when her actions caused another agent to get shot so she ends up a desk jockey, out of the action. That is until one day, a domestic terrorist known only as “The Citizen” announces that he’s going to bomb the Miss United States pageant in Texas, putting the FBI on alert, including Gracie’s partner Eric Matthews (Benjamin Bratt). Grace has the idea to infiltrate the contest using a decoy model, and despite her ungainly and unrefined appearance, gets picked to do so. She’s put under the wing of veteran pageant coach Victor Melling (Michael Caine), who is shocked at what he’s got to work with, and the two head to San Antonio to stop a madman. Comedy ensues.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR: Naturally, Bullock is the whole show here, her considerable warmth and presence keeping the absurd story on rails, but she’s not the only one that makes it work. William Shatner of all people shows up as the pageant’s long running MC and is a riot every time he’s on screen, earning genuine laughs with hardly any lines. The guy has uncanny timing. There’s also Candice Bergen as the competition’s director and former pageant winner Kathy Morningside, who has some strong moments herself.
But it’s got to be Caine who steals every scene he has. The unexpected casting of this highly-respected and Academy Award-winning icon serves as a kind of coup, as he basically hi-jacks the film and gets nearly every funny line. Caine, who showed he’s got the comedic chops for it all in the brilliant Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (read more about that here) is a finely-tuned machine, turning the coach into one of the funniest and more memorable characters in his long career.
A GREAT MOMENT: Knowing that, it’s almost impossible to narrow down a single great moment with Caine as he doles out the laughs like a stuck vending machine. But early on, once Gracie is picked to take the part of a pageant contestant, she and Matthews have their first meeting with Melling at a fancy restaurant. Getting a vibe he’s not comfortable with, Mathews ducks out, leaving Melling and Gracie alone, though Melling has already got a few sharp laughs in before they’ve even sat down. See, Gracie is a trainwreck, at least when thinking about what she needs to be for a standard beauty pageant. Her hair is a web of tangle split ends, she has no make-up, has a droopy posture and most worrisome is about as couth as a rutting pig in a trough of truffles.
Watching Caine work here is a bit surreal. He plays up to the British high culture and wee bit of arrogance perfectly as he extols about his celebrated history and how he would seem to have fallen mightily to be sitting here across from her. He explains how he lost his place in the pantheon when a contestant gave an exposing interview that called him a perfectionist that ruined her life. And now he’s here. He and Gracie slowly develop a kind of connection and he seems in need of her as she is of him. What’s cool too is under all this, barely noticeable is Gracie running her fingers along the rim of her water glass, which we see later is exactly what she does for the talent portion, playing the glass harp. Nice touch.
THE TALLY: Miss Congeniality is a breezy little comedy with a lot of heart and while it’s hardly a challenging film and has little to no suspense, it’s a great vehicle for Bullock who proves wholeheartedly that she could carry a film. The girl puts everything into this, from a bit of drama, to romance, to impressive physical work. While it panders to her charms and steers clear of reality, there’s a wonderful escapism to it all that makes for an easy choice in just having a good time at the movies. It’s what to watch.