MISS CONGENIALITY/MISS CONGENIALITY 2: ARMED AND FABULOUS - Blu-ray (Warner Bros. 2000/05) Warner Home Video
Donald Petrie’s Miss Congeniality (2000) is a wacky little comedy that takes on the beauty pageant circuit with equal portions of ribald humor and good-clean insanity and, for the most part, walks away with the crown. The film stars Sandra Bullock as Gracie Hart – a rough and tumble, utterly uncouth, and, not terribly feminine, FBI agent assigned the task of infiltrating the Miss United States pageant before a cryptic terrorist plots to blow up the event. Aside: with all the talk of militant terrorism around these days, I have never heard it a priority of Hezbollah to bring death and dishonor to the swim suit competition. But I digress. Miss Congeniality takes its basic one-premise wonder – the proverbial ‘fish out of water’ – and runs with it to hilarious heights. Interesting to reconsider not one, not two, but three writers contributing to this screenplay: Marc Lawrence, Katie Ford, Caryn Lucas, as the movie revolves around a single, and overly-simplified premise of the ‘ugly duckling’ rediscovering her inner beauty with the aid of an ambitious, if slightly masochistic guru, played with invigorating relish by Michael Caine. Comedian and talk show host, Ellen DeGeneres claimed the idea for the movie came to Lawrence after he quietly observed her learning to walk in high heels in preparation for hosting the Oscars. Personally, I would be more interested to know where Bullock picked up her piggy-snort-like chuckle and seemingly delicious aversion to being glamorized; Bullock, of course, being one of the most attractive women working in Hollywood then.
Set in New York City and San Antonio, Miss Congeniality shot exteriors at the St. Regis Hotel, and surrounding streets, with further location work done in San Antonio. However, the bulk of production took place in Austin, Texas, including interiors of the St. Regis – actually, Austin's Driskill Hotel. As for the climactic pageant, this was photographed by cinematographer, László Kovács at the University of Texas’ Bass Concert Hall, the hotel room sequences lensed in the Omni Austin at South Park. Cobbling together these various locations, as well as a screenplay riddled in the most coy and conventional fluff and nonsense did not seem to hurt the picture’s reception at the box office. Despite generally negative critical reviews, Miss Congeniality would go on to become the 5th highest money-maker of the year, tipping the scales in the U.S. with $106 million, and another $212 million worldwide. Our story begins in 1982 with an adolescent Grace Hart (Mary Ashleigh Green) beating up a school-yard bully (Cody Linley) threatening a boy she likes. However, as the boy (Eric Ian Goldberg) is utterly humiliated for having been defended by ‘a girl’, Gracie quickly flattens him too. Flash forward, and times have not changed. Gracie is now an FBI Special Agent with an iron will of her own. During a sting operation, Gracie disobeys a direct order to save a mob boss. As one of her fellow agents is shot during the incident, Gracie is demoted to a desk job for her insubordination.
Not long thereafter, the FBI receives an alert, about a domestic terrorist – a.k.a. ‘The Citizen’, planning to bomb the Miss United States beauty pageant in San Antonio. Gracie's partner, Eric Matthews (Benjamin Bratt) is the lead agent. However, he relies heavily on Gracie's suggestions, while taking credit for them himself. Gracie suggests one of their own goes undercover as a pageant contestant to flush out The Citizen. The idea has merit. So, Eric puts Gracie up to replace the newly disqualified Miss New Jersey. Pageant coach, Victor Melling (Michael Caine) is repulsed by what he sees. Gracie is lacking in just about every virtue in manner and deportment befitting a pageant contestant. With rather aggressive aplomb, Victor teaches Gracie everything he knows. Gradually, a friendship develops between Gracie – rechristened ‘Gracie-Lou Freebush’ and Victor. While sharing a hotel suite, Gracie also befriends, Miss Rhode Island, Cheryl Frasier (Heather Burns) and even manages to impress the judges with her self-defense techniques during the talent part of the competition.
Meanwhile, several suspects begin to emerge, including the current pageant’s director, Kathy Morningside (Candice Bergan) her assistant, Frank Tobin (Steve Monroe), the veteran Master of Ceremonies, Stan Fields (William Shatner). Gracie begins to suspect Kathy might be a ‘Citizen’ copycat as, while digging into her past, she learns Kathy won her pageant years ago, but only after the front-runner was mysteriously felled by an acute attack of food poisoning. Reporting her findings to Eric, Gracie learns the real ‘Citizen’ has already been arrested on an unrelated charge. As such, the FBI team is being recalled home. Still, Gracie cannot rid herself of the notion something is terribly wrong. Electing to remain behind, and continuing to compete in the pageant, Gracie is genuinely surprised when she is named first runner up. Cheryl wins the competition. However, as she ascends the stage to accept her tiara, Gracie suddenly realizes Frank is Kathy's son, and the one responsible for the bomb threat, desiring revenge for his mother being let go from the Miss United States organization. Gracie wrestles the tiara from Cheryl and casts it aside moments before it explodes. Kathy and Frank are exposed and arrested. As Gracie and Eric prepare to return to headquarters, presumably with a romantic interest brewing between them, Gracie is honorarily named ‘Miss Congeniality’.
Miss Congeniality is feather-weight fluff at best, and, a rather poorly conceived and thoroughly disposable entertainment in hindsight. The most distressing aspect of the picture is how it perceives virtually all of its characters in one-dimensional terms. There is barely anywhere for good solid characterization to emerge. Sandra Bullock’s Gracie is given only the most superficial of back stories to sell her wares. And Bullock, who has done better comedies, knows how to market herself as a goof-ball in stilettos. She is obviously having a very good time here. Ditto for Michael Caine – arguably, the most accomplished thespian in the cast. Precisely why Caine agreed to make this movie remains open for discussion. But he brings to his cardboard cutout some rather briskly executed and deftly defining features that make Victor Melling a genuine joy to behold as the éminence grise of the pageant circuit. For some strange reason, I continue to fondly remember Caine, suddenly peeling back the thin lyrca of Bullock’s one-piece swimsuit, spraying her buttocks with adhesive to keep the suit from riding up. Her immediate indignation as she feels the aerosol squirt, and his impromptu push, to propel her onto the catwalk, are indelibly etched, at least in my memory, as a wonderful bit of improvisation.
On reflection, the most engaging aspect of Miss Congeniality is its adversarial relationship between Victor and Gracie – he, from the old guard / she - an unwilling accomplice, unaccustomed to such man-handling techniques, expressly designed to transform her from gawky tomboy into ultra-feminine chic. As the pseudo-love interest, Benjamin Bratt is amiable enough. Indeed, fresh off his run in TV’s Law & Order and a very public break-up with superstar, Julia Roberts, Bratt was being groomed to fill the shoes of a major leading man and stud du jour. For some curious reason, this never happened, despite Bratt’s engaging personality, undeniable good looks, and, obvious acting chops. In Miss Congeniality, his character suffers from a dearth of dialogue. He is meant to convey so much in only a few scenes, but never gets the opportunity to act beyond a sound bite. As scripted, the picture is fairly mindless fluff, marginally salvaged by Bullock and Caine’s adversarial, rapport. The script paints in fairly broad brush strokes and is rather condescending to these pageant contestants – and, by extension, all beauty pageant contestants in general – perceived as socially stunted, empty-headed and flaxen-haired Cupi-dolls with narrowly a thought about anything beyond their own diets or how they will look in their evening gowns...oh, and of course, their mutual pledges for 'world peace'! In the end, Miss Congeniality is minor entertainment; modestly cute, slightly idiotic, but easy enough on the head and heart.
Miraculously, the picture warranted at sequel; the disastrous, Miss Congeniality 2: Armed & Fabulous, a pretentious regurgitation with an even more threadbare script, plus, a horrendously stupid assortment of thoroughly grating new characters. The movie picks up precisely where the first one left off: our Gracie, made the FBI’s poster-girl, a minor talent transformed into a TV celebrity. Given her high-profile, the agency forces Gracie to go ‘undercover’ again after Stan Fields and Cheryl Frasier are kidnapped. We are introduced to FBI new recruit, Sam Fuller (Regina King), who is a carbon-copy of Gracie before she learned to be a woman, newly assigned to shadow her now – presumably, to pick up a few pointers along the way; plus, a pair of agents (Enrique Murciano and Diedrich Bader) and a new controlling assistant director, Walter Collins (Treat Williams). Again, defying direct orders, Gracie poses as an old woman in a retirement home, then, a Las Vegas dancer, and a few other idiotically conceived ‘covers’ to rescue Stan and Cheryl before Collins' methods get everyone killed. The rest of the plot is as inconsequential as this Cole’s Notes’ summary. Suffice it to say, Armed and Fabulous makes the first Miss Congeniality look like Citizen Kane.
Warner Home Video’s Blu-ray is a double feature; two movies housed on a single disc, but it delivers a mostly solid visual presentation. Colors are bold and vibrant. Flesh tones are quite natural in appearance. Contrast levels are perfectly realized. There is no grain to speak and hence, the image can appear to have suffered from excessive DNR. The image is sharp, however, and fine details are evident throughout – very nicely realized in close-up. Minor edge enhancement crops up, though nothing that will distract. The audio is a DTS 5.1 on both features and fairly aggressive. Extras include two truncated featurettes and theatrical trailers, as well as an audio commentary on the first movie. Bottom line: nonsensical to a fault, but occasionally good for the laugh, you may want to snatch this one up. Just lower your expectations for a great comedy, and be amused by what’s here.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)