'Miss Congeniality' Is More Than Just a Pretty Face


"Miss Congeniality" is about a beauty pageant, right? So what's it doing opening with an FBI raid in what appears to be a Brighton Beach nightclub to nail some Russian mafiosi? It works like this: The most intrepid member of the raiding party is no-nonsense but headstrong special agent Gracie Hart (Sandra Bullock), who breaks the rules but gets the job done.

Gracie finds herself in the doghouse at the same time her boss (Ernie Hudson) is faced with having to place an undercover agent in the upcoming Miss United States Pageant, which has received a threat from one of the country's most crazed terrorists. Physically aggressive since childhood, Gracie has no time for appearances or even good table manners. She is, however, smart as a whip and independent-thinking, and her entire life revolves around her work.

So much is she "one of the boys," her colleague Eric Matthews (Benjamin Bratt), who is to head the anti-terrorist operation in San Antonio, site of the pageant, never remotely thinks of her for the undercover assignment. But there's no other agent qualified at the moment, and while she's never shown off her figure, she could look sensational in a bathing suit, thanks to those hard-body workouts.

Bullock has had mixed results in capitalizing on her "Speed" success, but she delivers a brash and broadly humorous turn in "Miss Congeniality," which she produced. Writers Marc Lawrence, Katie Ford and Caryn Lucas have built upon Bullock's knack for playing heroines who prove fearless and resourceful under pressure--and without losing their sense of humor.

They've devised a clever, intricate plot to combine with a "Pygmalion" tale, in which beauty pageant expert Victor Melling (Michael Caine, delightfully suave and bitchy) has something like 48 hours to transform Gracie, a rabid feminist who dismisses beauty pageant contestants as "a bunch of bikini stuffers," into a plausible last-minute replacement for Miss New Jersey. Melling has to perform something akin to a miracle because Gracie doesn't even own a dress and has to be taught to walk in high heels.

As she focuses on nailing the unknown terrorist, Gracie begins to change. Newly glamorous, she discovers men start treating her differently--even the handsome Eric, who has always appreciated her smarts and wit but never responded to her as a woman.

Gracie begins to see that a life as a woman beyond her career might actually be appealing--that it is possible to be feminine and attractive and still be a crackerjack agent. She begins to realize that while the pageant may be inane--and you can be sure the film, like others, pokes fun at its follies--the contestants are not all airheads and may desperately need that scholarship the winner takes home.

Directed by Donald Petrie with verve and a sure sense of what to emphasize and what to underplay, "Miss Congeniality" is all about making choices and thinking for yourself--and that goes for men as well as women.

In the meantime tension builds concerning if or when or how the psycho will strike. The FBI has the cooperation of the longtime pageant director (Candice Bergen), a shrewd cookie appalled by Gracie's appearance and demeanor but impressed by what the experienced Victor has wrought; yet Bergen's Kathy Morningside, the epitome of durable elegance, cannot but regard Gracie as the enemy--on the side of "the feminists, the intellectuals and the ugly women" she has had to fight to preserve the pageant, which she insists on calling a scholarship program.

This is a zesty role for the witty Bergen, and so is that of the pageant's veteran host for William Shatner, who brings back--with affection--memories of Miss America's venerable Bert Parks.

Photographed by Laszlo Kovacs with style rather than mere gloss, "Miss Congeniality" is a mainstream Hollywood escapist fantasy that in the end melts satire into sentimentality, but it is funny and knowing, detached enough to take a bemused stance toward its calculated tone. While unabashedly a star vehicle for Bullock, she has, as producer, wisely allowed her co-stars to shine as well.

* MPAA rating: PG-13, for sexual reference and a scene of violence. Times guidelines: suitable for all ages.

'Miss Congeniality'

Sandra Bullock: Gracie Hart

Michael Caine: Victor Melling

Benjamin Bratt: Eric Matthews

Candice Bergen: Kathy Morningside

William Shatner: Stan Fields

A Warner Bros. release of a Castle Rock Entertainment presentation in association with Village Roadshow Pictures and NVP Entertainment of a Fortis Films production. Director Donald Petrie. Producer Sandra Bullock. Executive producers Marc Lawrence, Ginger Sledge and Bruce Berman. Screenplay by Lawrence; from a story by Lawrence & Katie Ford & Caryn Lucas. Cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs. Editor Billy Weber. Music Edward Shearmur. Costumes Susie De Santo. Production designer Peter Larkin. Art director Ray Kluga. Set decorators Barbara Haberecht, Randy Smith Huke. Running time: 1 hour, 49 minutes.

In general release.

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