-By David Noh

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Slovenly FBI Agent Gracie Hart (Sandra Bullock) enters the Miss United States pageant to catch some terrorists who have vowed to blow up the beauty show. That, more or less, must have been the pitch that induced Bullock and other Hollywood higher-ups to produce the 'anti-vanity' project, Miss Congeniality. It took three writers to conceive a story that is completely devoid of wit or grace, but heavy on straining obviousness. Each scene seems primed to have the audience shriek in unison, 'She's such a loser, but so adorable!'

Of the current crop of 'America's sweethearts,' Bullock occupies a middle ground between the relentless perkiness of Meg Ryan and the sexy Everywoman of Julia Roberts. She's less stereotypically pretty than her colleagues, less feminine and more suggestive of the hard-working underdog. Unfortunately, she is forced to overdo her appeal here, in lieu of funny lines or original situations. She resorts to a gross, snorting laugh which is semi-cute the first time she does it, and subsequently, merely gross. Instead of charming the boys with a smile and catchy come-on phrase, she whomps them to the floor in a display of policewoman physical fitness. The one effective moment in the film comes after her transformation from tomboy-slob to pageant-worthy knockout. In a dress that fits her like a bandage, she strides toward the camera in slo-mo, with breath-catching, hormonal aplomb, and every Plain Jane--and quite a few guys--in the audience will experience a frisson.

After doing stud service for Madonna in The Next Best Thing, Benjamin Bratt is again called upon for escort duties here as Gracie's detective love interest, and does little else besides smirk. Michael Caine rivals Javier Bardem in Before Night Falls as the most unconvincing gay man on the screen this year, as a semi-swishy pageant coordinator with no outside life whatsoever (never mind any kind of significant other). As the villainess, Candice Bergen retains the stiff-as-a-board comedic style that worked for her all those seasons on "Murphy Brown." It works rather well here, too, as the film has the thudding obtuseness of the average sitcom. William Shatner is convincingly odious as her pageant cohort, although one wonders if he doesn't occasionally tire of his own sleazy-cheesy act. Ernie Hudson and the appealing John DiResta (a real-life former NYC transit cop) are wasted as FBI types who must simper and coo over Gracie's every new permutation. Heather Burns has a winsome sweetness as Miss Rhode Island, but the other contestants are interchangeable, sniping Barbie dolls who bond in sisterly fashion by the end. According to this script, makeovers are the total raison d'etre of every woman alive.

--David Noh

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