Now that I have rewatched Miss Congeniality (2000) for the first time in years, and in thinking back on the film’s star Sandra Bullock’s career, I cannot think of too many of her movies that I do not enjoy on some level. Okay, maybe Speed (1994) seems pretty silly now, though I do not remember enjoying it all that much in the 1990s. Also, there are some more modern roles she has taken that I am wholly unfamiliar with, like Ryan Stone in Gravity (2013). But I did like Ocean’s 8 (2018), and I am a little surprised they have yet to make a sequel to it. In between are a bunch of other titles that I will watch occasionally, even the so-called “chick-flicks.” Anyway, enjoy this review of Miss Congeniality, a fun little movie.
Gracie Hart (Sandra Bullock) had never been afraid to stand up to bullies, or the ingratitude of the boys she saved from their blows. This led her to a career as a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agent, though one that does not countenance lightly slights to her abilities. During an assignment where she was part of a team investigating a Russian mobster, she is unjustly blamed for one of her fellow agents getting shot. At the same time, there is a mysterious criminal on the loose called The Citizen who is carrying out a series of bombings that make finding this person a priority for the FBI. They seem to get a fresh plot to stop when they receive a new threat from The Citizen that seems to suggest that the Miss United States pageant is the next target for destruction. The new set of agents given the task of stopping this potential attack, led by Agent Eric Matthews (Benjamin Bratt), feel like they need someone to go undercover in the beauty contest in order to best protect it. After a rather unsettling, voyeur-ish sequence of looking through agency records and digitally putting a swimsuit on various employees, they settle on Gracie as their prospective contestant. The problem is that, despite her name, she has about as much grace as a boulder. Thus the Bureau sends her to the pageant’s organizers, namely the onetime winner and current co-host Kathy Morningside (Candice Bergen), for help. They agree to let Gracie to enter the competition on the condition that she gets some assistance in making her into a viable candidate. The person they turn to is Victor Melling (Michael Caine), a beauty expert of sorts responsible for coaching several Miss United States winners. After a great deal of pricking, prodding, and several layers of varnish, they are able to turn the tomboyish Agent Gracie Hart into Miss New Jersey Gracie Lou Freebush. Once at the pageant and interacting with other contestants, Gracie learns that Kathy’s dedication to the contest is borderline maniacal, and the elder lady even threatens to kill the agent if her bull in a china shop antics do anything to derail the contest. She also discovers that Kathy is being fired. This bit of news, coupled with her hunch that The Citizen letter that led her to this pageant was not authentic but the work of a copycat, raises her suspicion of the legendary Morningside. So convinced does she become of this fact that even when the real Citizen is captured elsewhere in the country and not in San Antonio, Texas, where the contest takes place, she decides to continue with her investigation despite having to turn in her badge to do so. No one else believe her, including Eric until he finds out that Kathy’s assistant Frank Tobin (Steve Monroe) is actually her son, a revelation she had kept hidden. These clues, along with other scenes scattered throughout the film, point to a plot by Kathy to blow up the crown of whoever is voted to be the next Miss United States. Together, Gracie and Eric are able to stop Kathy in rather disastrous looking final ceremony, complete with wrestling contestants and stage props on fire. In the end, though, Gracie is able to prove her case, and earns the gratitude of the newly crowned Miss United States, Miss Rhode Island Cheryl Frasier (Heather Burns).
There are some truly chucklesome moments in Miss Congeniality. There are also some moments that clearly date it. The whole beauty pageant theme is probably the most obvious. Remember when the Miss America pageants, on which this film is evidently based, were appointment television? No? I would not blame you as it has been a while since such blatant exploitation of feminine beauty was as popular. I know such contests are still around, but given the direction of our culture currently and identity politics, such things seem increasingly passé, to put it nicely. Why did we, as a society, ever feel that it was necessary to pit one woman’s beauty against another’s? One might say that, hang on, these contests are more than just how good a woman looks as they are asked to demonstrate a talent and answer other questions that reveal their aptitude. This is something that the movie takes pain to show. The Bible has many examples of women paying the consequences for flaunting their physical gifts, though I must stress that this does not make pageant entrants sinners. Doing so tends to devalue people, and as Gracie comes to know, these women are more than just the sashes they wear across their chests. What gives a Catholic reviewer pause is the idea that, even though these contests do actually speak to more of a whole, God-created person, ultimately they promote only the most limited aspects of the fairer sex. This is underscored by the agents who monitor the secret video taken by Gracie as she moves about the pageant as they ogle the various ladies captured by the lens. But if you take away the “beauty,” as if that were possible, with what are you left? Either way, it is a tricky situation. In sum, just understand that beauty is more than skin deep, just as God creates us to be.
There other problematic pieces of Miss Congeniality than beauty contests. There are some rather dated gay jokes that painfully stick out when viewed in 2020. Luckily, these do not overwhelm the movie, and on the whole it is fun to watch. Not only does Gracie come to appreciate her fellow contestants, but she also becomes a more well rounded person herself. As such, you have a well rounded film experience well worth a rental on Amazon Prime.
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