Given its ugly-duckling theme and star Sandra Bullock's well-tested flair for becoming a swan, "Miss Congeniality" should win blue ribbons. But without help from either script or director, poor Bullock gets stuck as a distant runner-up in this featherweight farce. It may satisfy better than a night spent at home in front of the tube (watching a beauty pageant, perhaps?), but not by much.
Bullock plays rough-edged Gracie Hart, a dedicated FBI agent who just wants to be one of the guys. She would be, too -- if the guys were real guys. But in this movie's FBI, there's scarcely room for brains for all the idiocy floating around. These fellows may be tough with guns, but their IQs are apparently the same as their shoe sizes. Currently, they're blundering along in search of a serial bomber.
It's a good thing Gracie's around, because it is she who deduces that the killer will next strike at a beauty pageant in San Antonio. Gracie is picked to go undercover as a contestant. With help from gay contest consultant Victor Melling (Michael Caine, in the most delicious role he's had in years), she gets dolled up enough to infiltrate the contest and ultimately unmask the villain.
Even with Caine shouldering some of the comedic burden (with middling help from Candice Bergen and William Shatner as contest honchos), Bullock is left with most of the film hanging around her heavily made-up neck. As she's demonstrated many times (remember "Hope Floats" and "While You Were Sleeping"?), she can rescue marginal material almost single-handedly. But here, she's hamstrung by director Donald Petrie and scriptwriters Marc Lawrence and Katie Ford, who seem to be working at cross-purposes.
Ford, who also wrote the TV movie "Mary and Rhoda," apparently suffers from a philosophical conflict. As CEO of the famous Ford Models agency, she can't quite seem to decide whether beauty pageants are meat displays or altruistic contests. She tries to play it both ways, and as a result, nothing she comes up with works particularly well. Lawrence, who wrote the almost-good "Forces of Nature" and the remake of "The Out-of-Towners," once again falls short.
Director Petrie has a better track record, notable especially for the first "Grumpy Old Men." But here, he's particularly ham-handed. The biggest victim of that clumsiness is Benjamin Bratt. After watching Bratt play an effective cop for so long on TV's "Law & Order," it's jarring to see him as Eric Matthews, the chauvinist buffoon who's in charge of the undercover operation. Gracie's supposedly devoted to the bureau, but if bratty Bratt's in it, what's the point?
As in "Speed II: Cruise Control," Bullock serves up some tasty morsels of watchability. Just because they're almost all visible in the trailers doesn't make them any less valuable. And when Caine's onscreen -- bitchily fussing over the reluctant beauty - the film is a scream. Those moments don't come along nearly as often as they should, and we're left filling time with silly pratfalls, pool dunkings and needless fistfights. The FBI should sue.