‘Miss Congeniality’ or — A Triumph of Cheap Gags and Camp?

Colin Edwards
4 min readFeb 1, 2024

Around halfway through ‘Miss Congeniality’ (2000) last night I found myself asking several questions — Was this a celebration of female empowerment or simply using the empty facade of being one for comedic effect? Was it an exploitation of camp or was it the genuine article? Was there a certain affection at play here or was it all hypocrisy? And then I realised Sandra Bullock’s character is given the undercover name of ‘Gracie Lou Freebush’ and that maybe I should stop overthinking ‘Miss Congeniality’ so much.

Gracie (Sandra Bullock) is a slovenly, slobby FBI agent who might not possess the elegance her name suggests but she sure knows her job and how to get it done. When a domestic terrorist known as “the Citizen” threatens to detonate a bomb during the 75th annual Miss United States beauty pageant it’s decided to send Gracie undercover as a contestant to see if she can get any leads from working the inside. Obviously the agency will ensure Gracie makes it through to the final top 5 by rigging the event but that doesn’t mean she isn’t in some desperate need of coaching so beauty pageant expert Victor Melling (Michael Caine) is brought in to help transform Gracie into a convincing, glamourous contestant.

So what we’re dealing with here is a sort of action version of ‘My Fair Lady’ as we watch Caine attempt to turn Bullock into a sophisticated beauty before a bomb goes off so your mileage with ‘Miss Congeniality’ will depend on how funny you find that idea.

And at first it wasn’t looking too good with Caine, playing a gay man, demonstrating to Bullock how to walk like a woman getting me worried we’d be dealing with nothing but a range of stereotypes. But when an exasperated Bullock yells at him, after he accuses her of sarcasm -

“Oh, I have sarcasm, when every word that comes out of your mouth is dripping with disdain?”

and he retorts…

“Ah. That is because I’m a miserable, grumpy elitist. And that works for me.”

I thought — well, at least I can empathise with the guy. So sure, the film is deliberately playing up to all the stereotypes associated with beauty pageants but is doing so explicitly to take the catty piss, which it most certainly does, yet never in a nasty or mean-spirited way.

This is best exemplified by my favourite character of Cheryl (Heather Burns), Miss Rhode Island, who, when asked by William Shatner to describe her idea of a perfect date, replies, after briefly pausing for thought, — “That would be a tough one. I’d have to say April 25th. Because it’s not too hot, not too cold, all you need is a light jacket.”

It’s a cheap gag but Burn’s delivers it with such perfectly delivered obliviousness, along with the precision of the exact date in her answer, that it works brilliantly.

She then follows it up with an even better line in the next scene when she sadly sighs to Sandra Bullock, who is attempting to cheer her up with some pizza afterwards, — “You heard my interview. I was like a female Rain Man.”

Again, it’s another cheap gag and several films from the 90’s and early 2000’s would use a lazy ‘Rain Man’ reference for a desperate chuckle, but it’s the fact Cheryl describes herself with the unnecessary word “female” in “female Rain Man” that tips it over into the genuinely hysterical.

Bullock also gets some great moments and it’s not so much a case of whether or not she can successfully pull-off both schlubby or glitzy and more the fact that no matter what she does that she can’t be booted out of the competition which, not surprisingly, leads to some funny moments. I also loved the shot at the beginning when, after a horrible day at work, she returns home to her apartment in a bad mood, throws her bags on the floor, trips over a blanket, kicks the shit out of her unmade bed, stabs the foil on her frozen dinner, sticks a wooden spoon in her microwave door and then falls over the blanket again.

The film’s far from perfect with issues ranging from some outdated clichés, a bucket-load of product placement and the reminder that William Shatner isn’t that funny when he’s actually trying to do comedy and is only funny when he’s playing it straight and being funny is purely a side effect.

I was surprised at how much of a good time I had with ‘Miss Congeniality’ and the campier and sillier it got the better it worked (it also has some quite nice cinematography by László Kovács). In short — if you find the idea of Sandra Bullock hiding doughnuts in her bra (and elsewhere!) then you’ll enjoy the entire movie.

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Colin Edwards

Comedy writer, radio producer and director of large scale audio features.