*/**** Image B Sound B Extras B-
starring Sandra Bullock, Michael Caine, Benjamin Bratt, Candice Bergen
screenplay by Marc Lawrence & Katie Ford & Caryn Lucas
directed by Donald Petrie
by Walter Chaw It starts pretty early on when a waitress at a Russian restaurant stands in front of a surveillance camera, causing the boys in the van to exclaim that "this broad has two asses!" (hey, if it's good enough for Porky's, right?)--and it's all downhill from there. Donald Petrie's Miss Congeniality has something to do with an ugly, bitter, uncouth woman discovering true happiness (love, career success, respect) by waxing her area and strutting down a runway. Confused? At least. Especially when the ugly woman in question is Sandra Bullock, who has made a career, more or less, out of being the beauty queen you think you have a shot at. The girl who binge eats like a hot dog eating contestant, records SportsCenter, and can still shimmy into her size 4 nightgown becomes a different kind of pornographic fantasy when you need a quick reminder of who has a real penis and who just has a gun--think There's Something About Mary without the irony. A scene before mutt becomes mah-vellous, in which she's watching past beauty queens for tips on how best to go undercover as a pageant contestant and offers a litany of comments on the women's intelligence, isn't so much hilarious as it is mean. And it's made worse by the end of the film, when all of the convenient bimbo stereotypes are bolstered and magnified rather than shown to be unkind shorthand.
Gracie Hart (Bullock) is an FBI agent who, in a character-development flashback, we see is deep down a butch, frustrated little girl with a habit of showing boys she likes them by beating them savagely. So once Gracie savagely beats cohort and dimwit misogynist Agent Matthews (Benjamin Bratt), we understand that they're destined for l'amour--but only if Hart gets her eyebrows plucked, fitted for a girdle, and buys whole hog into the extreme-makeover thing. What better reward for an otherwise competent, allegedly intelligent woman than a slope-browed Neanderthal womanizer with perfect hair? When a mad-dog domestic terrorist threatens the Ms. United States pageant, Gracie goes undercover (as Gracie Freebush--the equivalent of Bratt's character going undercover as Eric Cock-knocker) as a beauty queen in a series of gags that hinge almost solely on mocking the other contestants. Relief comes in the form of pageant-Yoda Victor Melling (Michael Caine), a role ripe for overstatement that comes off instead as a glimmer of unexpected potential in this premise. Little surprise, really, that Miss Congeniality was not only better as My Fair Lady, but also better as a straight farce a year earlier with Drop Dead Gorgeous.
Petrie the shoehorn, fond of ease and convention, dabbles in a trio of crowd-pleasing templates here: Bullock's standard Cinderella bullshit; the rogue cop/angry chief bit (Ernie Hudson with the honours this time around); and the fish-out-of-water intrigue. The troubling thing about the picture beyond its obvious troubling things is that with the impending demise of the Miss America pageant (and with The Donald threatening to acquire it), there is the truism that people share the film's belief that pageants are horse-and-pony shows masquerading as scholarship opportunities and don't care about them unless--and here's the rub--you get the reality show behind-the-scenes of the beauties doing their best to scratch each other's eyes out. What could be more entertaining than watching limited, pathetic women doing their level best to undermine one another for the opportunity to earn millions as a clothes horse? (See "America's Next Top Model" as case-in-point.) There's a real paucity of films about our venomous culture of self-hate and the tyranny of appearance, and a time or two Miss Congeniality seems on the verge of saying something with its odd voyeuristic device of having Gracie wander around with a P.O.V. camera, but in the end the picture is all lip service paid to the altar of sneering asides and being a magnificent prick.
A 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer with top-heavy matting is the very definition of totally average on Warner's new "Deluxe Edition" DVD of Miss Congeniality. Colours are fine, picture is fine, black level, shadow detail, sharpness: fine, fine, and fine. Similarly average is the film's DD 5.1 audio, which, save for the opening and closing scenes of broad Kindergarten Cop sitcom violence, doesn't give the surround channels much to do. Still, the spread between the front mains is excellent. Concurrent with the release of its sequel (which makes Miss Congeniality look like fucking solid gold) and this single-disc reissue, the studio has decided to release yet another edition of the film on DVD: a Deluxe Gift Set that bestows upon us a copy of the soundtrack CD. I'm screwing my face up, trying to think of a nice way to describe who the demographic is for this film, but there's no other good term for "emotionally stunted shut-in," so...there you have it. Though FILM FREAK CENTRAL was spared the extra coaster, we were not as lucky in avoiding the two commentaries, two documentaries, deleted scenes, and other fineries that adorn the Deluxe Edition.
The first yak-track comes courtesy producer Bullock and co-screenwriter Marc Lawrence, and it's packed with bonhomie and a sort of Carpenter/Russell ribbing that is pretty fun and informative for approximately half-an-hour until the two fall off into long stretches of silence punctuated with occasional snorts of "I'm lovin' this movie!" laughter. Bullock notices--disingenuously, I'd offer, as she's the producer, star, reason this film happened--that there are an awful lot of close-ups of Bullock both pre- and post-beautification. Not a complete waste of time, and I'd go so far as to suggest that you listen to it as the primary option in every scene that doesn't include Michael Caine, while a running joke of Bullock referring to Bratt as only "Handsome Ben" is actually not a bad explanation of Bratt's relative success. Commentary #2 features sage Petrie flying solo, shining light into dark corners like the debate over where to put the credits and the mystery of how they made Bullock unattractive. Seeing as how I was once asked if I'd seen "that talking pig movie" and I answered "Speed?", I'm probably not the best person to gauge the success of her "uglification." What I do know is that Petrie, the king of the formula convention, would have been infinitely more interesting discussing why it is that people like him think that putting Clark Kent glasses on someone outside of old comic books renders him or her unrecognizable. Like the first, the second lapses, even more so even, into pockets of dead air.
"Preparing for the Pageant" (7 mins.) is a wacky behind-the-scenes look at the comedy hit of the century that finds a self-amused Petrie drawling in his Faulknerian idiot manchild sort of way "Dirty Harriet goes to the prom!" A few outtakes embedded herein are labelled "outtake," a costume designer goes on like Petrie does about how drop dead gorgeous Bullock is and how scaling Everest would be easier than making her seem dowdy, and Caine, Bratt, et al describe their characters and their functions in the film. "The Pageant" (8 mins.) is more zany behind-the-scenes stuff covering the climax of the picture with more of the same plus Candice Bergen and William Shatner taking themselves very seriously indeed. Devilish technical problems like how to twirl a flaming baton slowly enough so as not to fling burning liquid off in every direction are tackled in a way that doesn't answer the question of how so much as confirm the already abundant evidence that they did it.
Three "Missing" scenes (6 mins.), narrated by Petrie, have the dude justifying the replacement of a dance scene with the standard montage, the removal of a wedding sequence in which Gracie's father asks her the one pertinent question of the film, i.e. whether or not she's a lesbian (the great Edward Herrmann hits the cutting room floor--and shame on Petrie for not identifying him), and, finally, the elision of a sequence wherein the former Miss New Jersey is coerced into stepping down with the unearthing of an old stag film. A preview doc for Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous (8 mins.) is the sort of thing that's going to be transplanted whole onto that flick's DVD release as well: it is, in other words, the MadLib for "Preparing for the Pageant"--just plug and play. A "Do You Have What It Takes To Be A Beauty Queen?" quiz hosted by El Shatner is a multiple-choice test that you can actually take. I did it for a while until it made me take a good hard look at my life. A theatrical trailer, fair warning for anybody, rounds out the presentation. Originally published: March 30, 2005.