Tag Archives: C

MISS CONGENIALITY

Sandra Bullock owes heartfelt thanks to Sally Field. If the latter hadn’t given us the perfectly awful “Beautiful” a few months back (her first directing gig), the producer-star’s new comedy would be the year’s worst picture about beauty pageants. As it is, “Miss Congeniality” is limp and synthetic, but it does generate a few easy laughs and doesn’t have the aura of smug self-importance that Field’s fiasco did. As far as pageant pictures go, however, it’s miles behind Christopher Guest’s hilarious mockumentary “Best in Show.” (The contestants in that flick are dogs, of course, but at least the picture isn’t.)

In the present case, the screenplay by Marc Lawrence, Katie Ford and Caryn Lucas is a one-joke affair that might have been more at home as a made-for-TV movie. Gawky, perpetually disheveled and occasionally insubordinate FBI agent Gracie Hart (Bullock) is enlisted as an entrant in the Miss United States Pageant when it’s concluded that a terrorist attack is likely to occur at the event. Our gal Gracie has to become the glamorous sort of thing who’d be credible in such a guise while acting as point person in the apprehension of the mad bomber. As an afterthought, she’s also finally able to romance fellow agent Eric Matthews (Benjamin Bratt), who’s obviously been sweet on her from the start but only now, as her contact man in the operation, is moved to act on his inclinations.

This is the sort of situation on which obvious jokes can be hung, and they’re strewn throughout the picture, even though director Donald Petrie doesn’t exhibit much pizzazz in punching them across. Bullock puts her slapstick talents to decent use as the klutzy heroine; she stumbles and falls with alarming frequency, but still manages to keep her character more ingratiating than irritating. Bratt proves himself a good sport as her partner, particularly in a couple of scenes in which the stars must engage in protracted wrestling matches or self-defense demonstrations (he always gets the worst of it, needless to say). The beauty contest milieu also allows for the introduction of lots of stock figures: the icily demanding pageant director (Candice Bergen, as brittle as she was as “Murphy Brown”); the dumb-as-a-post host (William Shatner, reprising the self-deprecating pose of his Priceline.com commercials); and a bevy of rivals, including a sweet but simple-minded baton-twirler from Rhode Island (Heather Burns) who becomes Gracie’s best friend among the contestants.

The real saving grace, however, is good old Michael Caine, who once more seems to be appearing in every second or third film released each week, but here is very welcome indeed. He plays Victor Melling, the snide, overbearing (but ultimately softhearted) pageant consultant hired to whip Gracie into shape for her contest performance. Melling has most of the script’s sharpest lines, and Caine delivers them with an impish glee that keeps the movie afloat even when the plot degenerates into a confused hodgepodge toward the close; though Melling is gay, moreover, Caine avoids the swishy stereotyping that could easily have infected the character. The result is hardly of “Pygmalion” quality, but the Hart-Melling interplay is the best part of “Miss Congeniality,” and it seems distinctly ungracious when, in the orgy of self-congratulation that closes the film, Gracie-Bullock doesn’t thank Victor-Caine by name.

A couple of concluding points. Though the picture was partially filmed in San Antonio, where the supposed pageant is set, it doesn’t make very effective use of the beautiful city–a considerable loss visually. And one has to wonder what the FBI will make of a picture that depicts virtually all of its agents as either inept nincompoops or (in the case of Bullock and Bratt’s boss, McDonald, played in overdrawn fashion by Ernie Hudson) loud-mouthed egotists. But whatever their reaction, the paying public’s reception of this amiable but thoroughly uninspired piece of fluff will probably be pretty mild amidst lots of higher-profile holiday fare.

BEDAZZLED

The 1967 version of “Bedazzled,” a modern comic riff on the Faust story, starred the team of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore; it didn’t come anywhere near to the sublime humor of the duo’s stage revue “Beyond the Fringe” (in which they appeared along with Alan Bennett and Jonathan Miller), but was intermittently funny, something that was inevitable given that Cook penned the script. The fact that this glitzy new version, jam-packed with special effects, stars Brendan Fraser and Elizabeth Hurley signals that it takes very different approach from the rather frumpy, cantakerous British original. It’s bigger, splashier, more conventional, more frantic–everything, it would seem, but funnier.

That’s not to say that “Bedazzled” is awful–indeed, it’s a pleasant surprise by comparison to its trailer, which made the picture look like a real dog; the studio had, moreover, delayed its release by some months–usually a sure sign of a stinker. But the team of Harold Ramis and Larry Gelbert have managed to make the flick mildly amusing, even if it’s little more than a series of sketches that wouldn’t have been out of place on the old “Carol Burnett” show and there’s absolutely no subtlety in its comic approach.

The plot centers on Elliot Richards (Brendan Fraser), an overeager doofus working at a computer firm who’s besotted with oblivious co-worker Alison Gardner (Frances O’Connor) and is shortly visited by the devil, in the person of Elizabeth Hurley, who offers him seven wishes in exchange for his soul. The remainder of the picture briefly recounts the troubled course of each of the scenarios Elliot chooses for himself (and for Alison, of course): in every case, needless to say, the slinky Beelzebub tosses some unexpected element into the fantasy mix which ruins it and sends the guy scampering back for another chance. Each of the “dream” sequences (Elliot as Colombian drug lord, Elliot as basketball star, Elliot as sensitive guy, etc.) is rather like a “Saturday Night Live” skit, except for the fact that they’re far more spiffily mounted: all have some genial, if sophomoric, sight gags and a few yucks, and most give Fraser an opportunity to mug furiously in heavy makeup. But none of them really go beyond one-joke premises, and so they end up seeming more than a trifle tired as the lumber their way to predictable conclusions.

Fraser does yeoman service in trying to put all the bits across, but he goes overboard in the pathetic dweeb material and is about as broad as can be imagined in his series of fantasy vaudeville turns. As he’s shown in the past (in “Blast from the Past,” for instance), Fraser’s an amiable light comedian, and he can handle slapstick decently enough too, but it would have been better had he tried for even a hint of restraint here. Ramis, however, has never been a subtle director, and he obviously encouraged his leading man to go full-out at every moment, relentlessly laying on the funny faces, grimaces, and exaggerated inflections. The result eventually grows wearying, and before the end you might find yourself observing, as I did (since Ramis insists on shooting too often in oppressive close-ups), how very bulbous Fraser’s nose is in profile. (I’m certain that’s not what’s supposed to be most memorable about his performance, but there it is.) As his demonic tormentor, Hurley looks fine in her endlessly provocative wardrobe, but she doesn’t really act beyond adopting a huffy, brittle pose which she maintains throughout. (Cook was his usual arch, snooty self, and with his lanky frame he probably would have looked hysterical in Hurley’s outfits.) Orlando Jones, Paul Adelstein and Toby Huss have a good time doing a series of caricatures as three of Elliot’s office-mates who take on various roles in his assorted wish-fulfillment fantasies; but their appearances are the sort of stuff one’s likely to see on “MAD TV” nowadays. O’Connor makes little impression as the girl of the hero’s dreams; and when she shows up in another guise at the film’s close, she’s positively grating.

The end of “Bedazzled” necessarily follows the expected device of having the devil foiled in the style of “Damn Yankees,” and it also fulfills the modern requirement to show the protagonist learning a nice moral from his experience–all of which means that it closes on a squishy, spuriously uplifting note that rather undermines the gleefully lowbrow character of what had transpired earlier. Still, as a whole it should prove reasonably diverting if you approach it with diminished expectations and leave your brain out in the parking lot.