It’s a confession I find myself making every once in a while: I like Sandra Bullock. I really do. She has a way about her that seems spontaneous, as if she were not reading from a script, and she has the courage to de-glam herself enough to do real, down-and-dirty physical comedy as opposed to just a wussy pratfall and a hair out of place. She elicits ire in some places, but I’m not sure why — at least, unlike Julia Roberts, she has no pretensions of being America’s Sweetheart. I mean, she was in Demolition Man.
Miss Congeniality is one of my favorite Bullock films, possessed of a quick wit, an anarchic spirit, and the ability to make chaos hilarious. It played perfectly to the actress’ strengths, and also had the imagination to cast the inimitable William Shatner as the unflappably dim-witted host of the Miss USA pageant. It had the imagination to put Bullock on stage at said pageant and announce that the one thing our society needs is “harsher punishments for parole violators, Stan.”
The surest sign that Miss Congeniality 2: Armed at Fabulous does not have a fraction of its predecessor’s intelligence is that the hilarious Shatner is relegated to being a useless hostage for the entirety of the film. Michael Caine, so amusing as the effete pageant trainer Victor Melling is nowhere to be found, replaced by the shrill Diedrich Bader (Napoleon Dynamite) playing an identical, though infintely more annoying role. And the plot, a potentially amusing way to replicate the conflict of the original in a somewhat new context, eventually degenerates to being a conceptual remake of Connie and Carla.
The first act is promising, actually, as Bullock’s Gracie Hart finds herself unable to do her job as an FBI agent because she keeps getting recognized in the field, courtesy of the events of the first film. There’s a hilarious moment when she tries to stake out a bank with a fake baby in a stroller (“How old?” “35.”). Then she gets dumped by her boyfriend (who I assume is Benjamin Bratt’s character in Miss Congeniality, though I’m not certain), and Bullock even has a couple of superficially nice, understated moments as her character’s life starts falling apart. She’s in such a state that when her boss (Ernie Hudson) proposes that she quit being a real agent and become a publicity stunt, “the new face of the FBI,” she agrees, and is put in the hands of a fashion consultant (Bader), who opines, “God, I hope she’s not a fatty.”
That’s a strong conceit, as these things go, but the movie takes it too literally. The charm of the first film lay in the fundamental discrepancy between what Gracie Hart actually was and the part she was forced to play. Here, she assimilates so completely into her role as the FBI’s resident fashionista that the comedy is gone — what we are watching is nothing more than Bullock parading around in expensive outfits and, eventually, trying to solve a crime despite not being taken seriously. This could be funny, but the screenplay by Marc Lawrence (who, inexplicably, also wrote the original) just isn’t very good at squeezing out laughs — everything seems forced, contrived, leaden. The biggest laughs come from Regina King as the super-tough agent forced to be Gracie’s bodyguard, but that too gets old real fast.
The director is John Pasquin, whose slate includes such masterpieces as Jungle 2 Jungle, and he mishandles this movie terribly. Jokes that may otherwise have at least elicited a smile fall with a terrible thud; the timing is off, the editing is off, and the movie starts losing momentum from the very first scenes. This material needs a Jonathan Lynn, or at least a Donald Petrie, who directed the original (though with Welcome to Mooseport, the latter too has established his fallibility). Everything about Miss Congeniality 2 is second-rate: the script, the direction, even the casting. And the film, despite the presence of the still-charming Sandra Bullock, is even worse than the sum of those parts.