Despite the Bullock smile (surely as heartwarming as the vaunted Roberts grin) and a cast of acting pros, Donald Petrie’s romantic comedy Miss Congeniality (with Sandra B. as the eponymous heroine) never catches fire. Although the script grants its leading lady some snappy verbal and physical humor, the film flickers and dies under a surfeit of stereotypes and one critical piece of ill-judged casting. Any director who imagines the slender acting talent of Benjamin Bratt (late of TV’s Law & Order) can sustain the male lead, FBI agent and atavistic prig Eric Matthews (particularly opposite the gloriously charismatic Bullock) requires instant re-immersion in Casting 101. But, to be fair, the movie’s problems lie as much in its basic choice of genre as in its execution.
The discomfort induced by Miss Congeniality reiterates the apparently difficult-to-absorb lesson that reconstructing the romantic comedy for contemporary audiences requires more than a jaunty leading lady and a stock defensive antagonism that imperfectly masks besotted true love. From It Happened One Night to What’s Up, Doc?, the real frisson that underpinned the pleasure of such movies lay not in the love story’s “will they, won’t they” plotting, but in the skillful ways each script pushed to the limits the public constructions of the value of female virginity and the dangers of male sexuality and swathed the all-too-hokey “happily ever after” denouements in sparkling irony. The Doris Day/Rock Hudson double-billings epitomized the edginess of the romantic comedy in its heyday. Day’s virginal “working woman” character was repeatedly on the verge giving up her virginity to Hudson’s playboy (his openly secret gayness notwithstanding), but she always recovered her will and saved her reputation, just in time. This genre invited the complicity of its audiences through its satirizing of both public conventions and the individual hypocrisy that sustained them (without necessarily following them).
Today’s writers and directors face a double-whammy here. First, playing with the limits of sexual convention has grown about as daring as paddling in the ocean. Second, those earlier comedies suggest that actions of both women and men—often duplicitous, deceitful, and downright unpleasant—are rooted not in the individuals’ characters but in the strictures of a conventional code. In a sense, they represent the lovelorn seekers and the oversexed sought—or vice versa—as the brainwashed victims of the inflexible prescriptions of sexual convention. Men and women “behaved badly” not because they were unpleasant, but because the routes to their desires were so tortured and circumscribed. Shorn of such subtext, however, the tricky, vindictive women (such as Julia Roberts’ character in My Best Friend’s Wedding) and the unreconstructed chauvinists (Bratt’s character in this film) appear as the kind of people whom any halfway intelligent, reasonably humane person would avoid even in extremis.
Produced by Bullock and directed by Donald Petrie, Miss Congeniality thus starts with a fundamental disadvantage that little in its journey through the “tomboy transformed” subset of the romantic canon can dispel. Bullock’s FBI agent Gracie Hart is a non-conformist whose disregard for orders gets a colleague shot. She’s also a feminist who doesn’t play the “dress up and date me” game. Matthews ties this personal choice explicitly to her “dangerousness” in the field when he glances dismissively at her after the shooting and spits, “You look like shit,” into her haggard face. Condemned to ride a desk and endure the contempt of her primarily male fellow agents (she picks up their Starbucks coffee and muffins), Gracie gains the proverbial one last chance when she goes undercover at the Miss United States beauty pageant to flush out the serial bomber who is targeting the show.
Vic Melling (Michael Caine camping in haughty-rogue-with-an-edge mode), an obsessive beauty pageant “consultant” in search of a comeback, plays Higgins to Gracie’s Eliza (and the shades of Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn definitely hover). Lo and behold, Gracie makes it into the top five, as prearranged by the skeptical Matthews with the contest’s organizers, Kathy Morningside (Candice Bergen looking unnervingly like a Dynasty revenant) and old-pro presenter Stan (a wickedly sanctimonious outing by William Shatner). After being reluctantly abandoned by FBI- paid Svengali Vic and by her colleagues, Gracie is ultimately crowned runner-up. Along the way, cliches accumulate. First, the setting: the pageant is held in Texas, allowing a couple of cheap shots at the big state (holding the pageant’s preliminaries at the Alamo, for example, and letting Gracie think that a gun-toting Texan might be a killer). Second, the “love” story’s unfolding: when Gracie first flirts with Matthews, he bites into a (phallic) chocolate bar instead of taking the first kiss. And, as soon as Gracie rushes to find Matthews at the pool and offer her resignation, you know she’s going to end up cavorting in the water, fully clothed, every curve outlined. Finally, in the replay of so many movies over so many years, one character’s loss of beauty and the power it apparently conveys is coded as the first step into murderous insanity (in this case, the bombing of the pageant).
While it’s eminently possible to imagine Sandra Bullock wowing a beauty contest, it’s difficult to imagine the Gracie of the movie’s early scenes (so convincingly honest in Bullock’s nuanced portrayal) doing the same. Even more surprisingly, this reluctant Cinderella finds revelation in the girly gaggles backstage at the beauty mart: trust, female solidarity, and the solution to the crime. In a disturbing reversal of the opening sequences, once Gracie becomes a “real” woman (in the limited perspective of the male agents), exploiting her beauty, hanging with the girls for pizza, beer, and clubbing, and flirting with the genuinely despicable Matthews, she also becomes an ace agent, saving Mid-Western, mid-blonde, Miss United States from death by fragmentation. Oh, and she also cries at the end, proving that the beastly hard-nosed Gracie (as her FBI colleagues saw her) is gone for good.
At root, the crime of this film is not the bomb threat to the pageant but Gracie’s reluctance to exploit her beauty in the ways her throwback-to-the-fifties male colleagues deem acceptable, and an older woman’s reluctance to retire gracefully after beauty fades. The “Miss” in the title encapsulates all the failings of this movie, a would-be satire on the primacy of physical appearance willingly co-opted by the object of its derision. No matter how charming Sandra Bullock is, no matter how sharp her timing and graceful her pratfalls, Miss Congeniality suffocates in a shallow nostalgia for the days when being a woman meant looking good and snagging a man. The producer Bullock chose a great role for the actress Bullock but financed a pretty sad picture for the women they might both represent.