Stumbling its way down the comedy runway, “Miss Congeniality” is yet another miscalculated vehicle for the ever-feisty Sandra Bullock, who also serves as producer. Project reps further proof — in the wake of such disappointments as “Forces of Nature” and “28 Days” — that the producer doesn’t always know what’s best for the actress. Theoretically, pic’s heroine, an attitude-filled, rough-and-tumble FBI agent who goes undercover as a beauty pageant finalist, would seem to be a fine fit for star; in reality, this is minor stuff more suited to an up-and-comer than an established marquee headliner. Although similarly negligible movies this year have blown out the B.O. lights, it’s hard to imagine this contestant becoming more than a holiday season also-ran.
A mini-prologue set in 1982 New Jersey, revealing that protag Gracie Hart’s tough tactics with the opposite sex were ingrained from pre-teenhood, promises more pungent laughs and observations than Marc Lawrence’s screenplay ever delivers.
Now in her early 30s, Gracie works on a fed undercover operation clumsily enough to get one of her colleagues shot, and she is relegated to desk work by boss McDonald (Ernie Hudson, who by now is doing this taskmaster thing by rote). At the same time, alas, the Citizen, a right-wing domestic terrorist on whom Gracie has done some homework, sends another of his abstruse messages, this time declaring that he’s ready to attack another target — the upcoming Miss USA pageant in San Antonio.
It hardly takes an FBI cryptographer to decipher where things are headed, although Donald Petrie’s manner of helming, wending his way through the opening act with a series of tired comic distractions, would suggest that Gracie’s fate is greatly in doubt. Since the only way to beat the terrorist is to go undercover with a female FBI agent as a pageant contestant, it is a matter of waiting out the shtick for Bullock to be brought in from the cold by her partner and operation head Eric (Benjamin Bratt). Gracie, whose martial arts moves are a whole lot better than her way with a makeup brush, is literally pinned to the mat by Eric, who gets the ball rolling by arranging a lunch meeting with vet pageant consultant Victor (Michael Caine).
Encounter between Bullock and Caine is a true measure of how pic reflects a general decline in the Hollywood comedy of manners. All the elements of a classic confrontation that Hawks or Wilder would have sent over the fence ends up a mere dribbler to the mound; tellingly, more laughs are generated by the elementary visual gag of Gracie’s overnight makeover into a hip-swiveling hottie who captures Eric’s eye.
More puzzling is pic’s general avoidance of the potentially rich and funny clashes between Gracie and the kind of spindly, superficial gals she hates. Out of nowhere, Gracie, as Miss New Jersey, shows off social graces she supposedly never had. Her sarcastic bent is hugely appreciated by the hipper ones among the competish, such as Miss New York (Melissa De Sousa), and Gracie even finds herself charmed by the sweetly innocent Cheryl, who wears the Miss Rhode Island sash (Heather Burns, in pic’s most endearing perf). In the process, Gracie herself gets in touch with her inner Cindy Crawford.
Limiting the options for character-based comedy while sending the protag on such a dubious and proscribed course is a clear miscalculation, forcing pic to draw its juice from mere plot machinations. Prime among these is a strand involving pageant director Kathy Morningside (Candice Bergen) — with her slovenly, too-eager son, Frank (Steve Monroe), at her side — whose bitter loss during her beauty queen days has brewed vengeful desires.
As always, Bullock is game for any situation, and she maintains a natural gift for inviting the audience into her character’s dilemmas, despite their artificiality. Surely burning the candle at both ends as both producer and high-energy star, Bullock sometimes misjudges in front of the lens with repetitive mugging, which won’t win her new converts. The busy Bratt is still waiting for a breakout role; this one is just a few comic paces away from his ramrod-straight cop on “Law and Order.”
Prancing about in lots of pink and lavender garb, care of costumer Susie De Santo’s witty designs, Caine has a fine time as the makeover master even if he’s vastly overqualified for the modest assignment. Even finer is William Shatner as the clueless pageant emcee, a throwaway role that he embraces with every self-mocking fiber he can muster. Bergen appears to be aiming for Lauren Bacall dimensions here, an effort that doesn’t bring out her best side.
For a production lensed by d.p. legend Laszlo Kovacs, overall look surprisingly misses the kinds of visual contrasts and color coding suited to a cops-and-beauties lark.