Miss Congeniality

(Donald Petrie, USA, 2000)


The makeover movie is among popular cinema's sturdiest genres. From Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958) and Cukor's My Fair Lady (1964) to Pretty Woman (1990) and Never Been Kissed (1999), nothing is more delightful than the complete transformation of a character into his or her opposite in terms of looks, costume and manners.

Are makeover movies superficial? Very often. They play to the camp wisdom that social behaviour has little to do with deep things like soul or a true identity and everything to do with presenting the best possible image of oneself. Makeover movies are all about the triumph of artifice over nature – and also over ideology.

Gracie (Sandra Bullock) in Miss Congeniality has plenty of ideological defences. A tough, angry cop who has been an unrepentant tomboy since childhood, Gracie is chosen to go undercover at the Miss United States Pageant – the epitome of the kind of airheaded femininity she has always mocked and shunned.

Gracie's supervisor, Eric (Benjamin Bratt), is skeptical about her chances at ever fitting in with the bimbo set, and Victor (Michael Caine), a 'beauty pageant consultant', is exasperated at having to mould such an impossible candidate into shape within a mere few days.

So the dieting and hairdressing, the lessons in posture and elocution, the tips on what to say and when, begin in earnest. All the while, Gracie keeps her eye out for developments in the other, less interesting part of the plot – the possibility that a psychopath may strike in any guise at any time.

Director Donald Petrie (Mystic Pizza, 1988) juggles the various elements of comedy, action and budding romance relatively well. Where it really counts – in the depiction of everything to with the pageant and its rituals – he tries somewhat uneasily to maintain two viewpoints.

On the one hand, the film (scripted by Marc Lawrence) lets us vibe along with Gracie's antipathy towards this event. It is easy to take almost everything she says and does as a sarcastic parody of the Beauty Myth and its values.

On the other hand, we also have to accept – as in every decent makeover movie – that Gracie really does discover a hitherto repressed, wholly admirable part of herself in the process of this masquerade. The film wobbles towards this old-fashioned affirmation in a furious flurry of turnaround events.

Bullock, previously seen in the dire 28 Days (2000), returns to the top of her form in this often amusing vehicle. Bratt is a rather pale straight man alongside her, but some fine moments of camp excess are provided by Caine (far more bearable here than in Quills [2000]) and especially Candice Bergen. As the pushy Kathy Morningside, a bitter former beauty queen, Bergen rails against all those who oppose her life's work – those "feminists ... intellectuals ... ugly women!"

MORE Petrie: The Associate, My Favourite Martian

MORE Marc Lawrence: Life with Mikey, Two Weeks Notice

© Adrian Martin March 2001

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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