Cast as an officious gay beauty-contestant advisor in Miss Congeniality, Michael Caine illustrates how to stand out in an otherwise unremarkable mainstream comedy, investing a character that could have been an obnoxious stereotype with some of the quiet dignity he brought to The Cider House Rules. Which is not to suggest that Miss Congeniality is anywhere near as powerful or compassionate as that film; on the contrary, it's little more than a competent, formulaic crowd-pleaser. But thanks to strong performances from Caine and star Sandra Bullock, it's never as dire or grating as its premise would suggest. Bullock stars as yet another agent-who-plays-by-her-own-rules, a gritty loner with the terrible diet, messy apartment, and lack of social skills that have been the renegade law officer's trademarks at least since the first Dirty Harry film. Bullock's surly FBI agent receives a crash course in gender-role socialization, however, when she goes undercover as a beauty-pageant contestant, a move that allows the filmmakers to exploit the conventions and clichés of three different genres: the renegade-cop movie, the modern-day Cinderella story, and the fish-out-of-water comedy. A veteran of such high-concept fare as Richie Rich and My Favorite Martian, director Donald Petrie indulges every renegade-cop cliché in the book, from the wild opening stunt that puts everyone's life in danger to the ball-busting chief to the scene in which the hero is ordered to give up her badge and gun. Bullock's assured performance keeps matters watchable, if never distinguished, but much of the reason Miss Congeniality so effectively uses Bullock (who also produced) is that nothing in it, with the possible exception of Caine's performance, threatens to overshadow her work. As a vehicle for its star, Miss Congeniality does its job, but anyone looking for more than a strong cast in a generic action comedy will likely come away disappointed.
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