Miss Congeniality is, well, shockingly congenial. Visually, it’s nothing to write home about, and the script isn’t all that sharp, especially before it gets to the pageant (though it does give us at least two gems: earnest Cheryl describing her perfect date and Vic’s bittersweet and deadpan line about how Gracie is the daughter he never had). But the performances are a delight, and they more than make up for the movie’s weaknesses. This is a movie I’ve happily seen multiple times and will undoubtedly see many times in the future.
The biggest key to its success is Sandra Bullock. As tough, slovenly FBI Agent Grace Hart, forced to go undercover as “Gracie Lou Freebush” at the Miss United States pageant, Bullock absolutely radiates her signature warmth and charisma. She’s so damn likable by virtue of Bullock’s performance that the more annoying details of her character–like the clumsily implemented quasi-tragic backstory–barely even register; I’m too busy admiring how Bullock makes Gracie’s signature snort-laugh both adorable and believably off-putting. She’s a beacon of sincerity, whether she’s playing grumpy, affectionate, playful, or emotionally wounded.
Bullock is complemented by some great supporting performances: Michael Caine’s jaded pageant coach, Heather Burns’s wide-eyed and innocent Miss Rhode Island (who instantly and understandably comes across as having a crush on Gracie Lou), Candice Bergen’s sugar-and-steel pageant director, and–hitting several comedic highs here–William Shatner’s note-perfect pageant host, who nails the vibe of someone who’s found his true metier in serving up charming, calorie-light fluff for audiences. Benjamin Bratt, as Grace’s partner and love interest, is also good here, but he doesn’t have the same color or oomph. Partly, though, that’s because he’s shoehorned into an unnecessary romantic subplot; when he gets to just play laid-back, shallow, ambitious, and funny, and be Gracie’s flawed partner rather than her she-could-do-better love interest, he generates some sparks.
As far as beauty pageant movies go, this doesn’t have even a tenth of the vision–let alone the satire–of something like Drop Dead Gorgeous, but it’s effortlessly watchable and incredibly well-cast. It’s a solid runner-up in any pageant film ranking.
Miss Congeniality is streaming on HBO Max.