From the time she was a young girl, Gracie Hart demonstrated very little grace, but lots of heart. We first meet the spectacled tomboy on a school playground where she rescues a boy being bullied. When the battered kid shows more disrespect than appreciation (he resents being bailed out by a girl), she pops him in the nose herself. Skip to present-day. Special Agent Gracie Hart lives, talks, eats, drinks and acts like a blue-collar bachelor. And that’s how her coworkers treat her—like one of the guys. That is until a serial bomber drops a clue that his next target is the Miss United States pageant, and Gracie is the only one qualified to go undercover as a contestant.
As one might imagine, Bullock (who plays Hart) cleans up pretty well. But it’s one thing for Gracie to look like a beauty queen and another to carry herself like one. So the FBI hires gay pageant consultant Victor Melling to turn this sow’s ear into a silk purse à la Eliza Doolittle. Gracie proceeds to take over for Miss New Jersey despite her disgust for the whole idea of "empty-headed bimbos" parading around talking about world peace. As she strives to develop her feminine charms, she bonds with her shapely competition and gets closer and closer to identifying the villain (Gracie is way ahead of her male colleagues on fingering the baddie, but the plot is so predictable that we figure it out well before she does). In the midst of it all lie flurries of love-hate sparring between Gracie and her chauvinistic boss, Eric, that plays out like a couple of flirting eighth graders. In the end, good triumphs over evil while Eric and Gracie’s mutual respect grows.
positive elements: During a sting operation, Gracie’s moment of compassion toward a choking criminal jeopardizes the operation, but reveals her tender heart. She seems committed to her job of defending justice and protecting people. She shows support and concern for her fellow beauty contestants, which ultimately earns her their vote for Miss Congeniality. A scene features Gracie modeling self-defense techniques for women in order to help them protect themselves. There’s a funny anti-tobacco statement. Gracie’s snide remarks about beauty pageants and those who take them seriously raise valid questions about the objectification of women. Meanwhile, her feminist antagonism toward the women who are being objectified softens. The film also exposes some "tricks of the trade" used to make women look more glamorous than humanly possible.
spiritual content: Statements by Miss Rhode Island cast her parents as religious extremists. Grace implies that a beauty queen with bust enhancement would, upon entering heaven, be "sent back" by God because of her phony breasts. Gracie’s harsh exclamation of Christ’s name stuns a crowd, leading her to try and cover up by making it part of a prayer for her food (an extremely offensive moment played for laughs).
sexual content: Form-fitting outfits, low-cut dresses, skimpy bathing suits and half-dressed women wander through the film. Innuendo and veiled sexual references deal with intercourse, male genitalia and homosexuality. An endowed, topless mannequin has its head blown off in a vicious experiment. Gracie exercises to "None of Your Business," a song by R&B act Salt 'N' Pepa that defends prostitution ("sell[ing] it on the weekend"). After coming up short of the crown, a Miss United States contestant bolts to the apron of the stage and declares her lesbianism, expressing affection for her partner in the audience (this leads a lesbian working for the TV network to defend the lifestyle as well). Overall, the film is quite sympathetic to homosexuality. And for the most part, male characters are unsupportive, confrontational, perverted or just plain stupid. The one exception is the fatherly, wise Victor. Men mock "average" women in bathing suits while drooling over those they get to ogle via surveillance video. They hoot and holler. And when their ring-leader, the womanizing Eric, finally asks out Gracie in the closing scene, the dialogue is downright irresponsible. "Are you asking me out on a date?," Gracie asks. He replies, "Just a casual dinner. If we happen to have sex afterwards, so be it." The two chuckle. She should elbow him in the gut and tell him to take a hike. Does she? No. They end with a kiss, as if buying into the possibility of sleeping with the libidinous heel. Earlier in the film, one of the women mocks virginity.
violent content: A face-off between FBI agents and three Russian mobsters results in one pulling a knife on Gracie, as well as volleys of gunfire (no fatalities). There are fisticuffs on a school playground. Gracie and Eric wrestle in a gym, kicking and throwing each other around quite hard until one gives in, inspiring onlookers to wager on the battle. A scuffle breaks out at the Miss United States pageant as law enforcement officials try to subdue the bad guys and Gracie tries to wrest away the winner’s crown which is wired with explosives.
crude or profane language: Approximately three dozen profanities and inappropriate uses of the Lord’s name (see "spiritual content" for the most egregious example). Sexual innuendo is common.
drug and alcohol content: Gracie drinks beer on several occasions, and takes a bunch of pageant friends to a nightclub for shots and beers (one of the girls gets plastered). Eric enters a bar with a date and both order alcohol.
other negative elements: Hollywood hypocrisy. For all of Gracie’s noble disdain over the objectification of women, the movie does exactly that to draw and entertain its audience. Not only is flesh marched back and forth before the camera, but the poster promoting the film is racy enough that we didn’t feel comfortable reprinting it alongside this review.
conclusion: Sandra Bullock not only stars in Miss Congeniality, she produced it. After disappointing turns last year in 28 Days, Forces of Nature and Gun Shy, the actress who became America’s sweetheart in While You Were Sleeping is way overdue for a hit. Will this be the one? Hard to say. Despite middling reviews, she did snag a Golden Globe nomination for her portrayal of Gracie Hart ("Best Actress in a Comedy or Musical"), but once again Bullock demonstrates a talent worthy of much better material.
The script is clunky and obvious. For one thing, the "mad bomber" whodunit creates no real mystery or tension. We know how it will end because we’ve seen it all before. Besides, it’s not about the FBI case anyway; it’s about watching Bullock morph from an unkempt, gum-chewing New York cop to a hair-tossing, mascara-wearing, glass-playing (don’t ask) beauty queen. With the exception of Gracie and possibly Victor (Caine revisiting his Educating Rita territory), the characters are as thin as the plot. Candice Bergen is, well, Candice Bergen. Ernie Hudson is just the latest in a string of bombastic African-American cops who shout down the hero in the process of pulling him/her off the streets in favor of a desk job. William Shatner’s aging emcee comes across as Bert Parks combined with Shatner’s own not-as-cool-as-he-thinks-he-is microphone hog from the Priceline-dot-com TV commercials. Of course, none of this will matter to families already put off by profanity, alcohol use and sexual situations that are anything but congenial.