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Winsor McCay -- The Master Edition

A new DVD offers an opportunity to see films by a master of animation —Andrea Birgers (DVD review...)

Gertie the Dinosaur, born of Winsor McCay

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Sandra Bullock has made her name playing “unattractive” women. She’s always attractive (this is Hollywood, after all), but her characters supposedly aren’t, at least until they meet the right guy. She was a computer geek in The Net and a rehab queen in 28 Days. Her breakthrough role was the shy, mousy subway worker in While You Were Sleeping. Her role in Miss Congeniality, then, is the epitome of that idea. It’s the part she was born to play.

Tough, Sloppy, and Crude

William Shatner introduces Miss CongenialitySandra Bullock plays FBI agent Gracie Hart. She’s a tomboy. She lives for her job as an agent. She’s tough, sloppy, crude, and has only had 2 dates in the last ten years. Hard to imagine a starlet like Bullock playing a plain, mannish, “unattractive” woman, but, as I’ve said, that’s her schtick.

Her pal, agent Matthews (Benjamin Bratt), has recently been promoted to the “Citizen” case. He’ll be investigating a unabomber-type criminal who leaves encoded messages indicating where he’ll strike next. His next target will be the Miss USA pageant, so Matthews recruits Hart to go undercover.

Hart is hostile to beauty pageants. She’d rather swill beer and watch football than look pretty and prattle on about world peace. But she’s the only man for the job in Matthews’ unit, so she must go along with it.

Victor Melling (Michael Caine, borrowing some from his role in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) is brought in to refine Hart. He has two days to make her beautiful, graceful, and charming.

One of the Guys

Most of the jokes in the movie involve Bullock being one of the guys (and a slob at that). One of the early conversations in the film has her arguing with Matthews about why she couldn’t possibly take the undercover pageant assignment. The argument could have been set anywhere; it’s just dialogue. But it’s set in the gym with Hart and Matthews wrestling, each one scoring points against the other both verbally and physically.

In another example, her first meeting with Vic, “Mr. Pageant,” appalls him. They meet at a classy restaurant, where she orders steak and fries, drowned in ketchup. He tries to impart his wisdom between bloody, sloppy bites and swigs of beer. At one point, he asks her “What do you plan to do for your talent? Sing? Dance? Chew with your mouth closed?”

A Notch Above

As a comedy, Miss Congeniality succeeds, but forgettably. What makes it a good movie, then, is Bullock herself in a strong role that appeals to the feminist in me. She is smart and tough, and she can hold her own against the male chauvinism of her colleagues.

In a nice change of pace, all the main characters are women. Hart’s best friend in the pageant is Cheryl (“Miss Rhode Island,” played by Heather Burns). And the pageant’s coordinator, the film’s excuse for an antagonist, is Kathy Morningside (Candice Bergen). Then men are all in supporting, throwaway roles. Caine’s character is the honorary female – the gay man who can help Hart with the pageant, and Benjamin Bratt’s character is merely the love interest – the prize to be won. Instead of the hero getting “the girl,” this picture has the hero getting “the boy.”

Much of the credit for Bullock’s strong character and for the clever sex-role reversal probably goes to Bullock herself. Bullock was one of the film’s producers, which gave her some serious power in deciding how the film would come across. If that’s true, I say more power to her. Miss Congeniality isn’t a great film, but because of that little extra effort, this average comedy came out a notch above average.