- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 23, 2005

The five-year gap between “Miss Congeniality,” a Sandra Bullock crowd-pleaser of 2000, and its sequel is difficult to ascribe to a vow of perfection. The on-the-job misadventures contrived for the star’s encore as maverick FBI agent Gracie Hart are often strenuously facetious, but “Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous” fails to emerge as a freshly inspired and flattering vehicle.

In fact, by the time it lumbers to a conclusion of sorts — the fadeout, a plug for “world peace,” is followed quickly by a set of deadbeat outtakes — I felt about 20 years older and would have welcomed belated suggestions for a clever, disarming sequel.

The introductory sequences have some promise. The general idea is that Gracie’s original caper going undercover as a contestant in the Miss United States pageant to protect the legitimate finalists from death threats — has turned her into a beloved national figure. So, within weeks of her celebrity, Gracie is no longer suitable for undercover work. Too many adoring fans would recognize her and beg for autographs.

In addition, the absence of one particular cast member from the prototype — Benjamin Bratt — is explained by turning his character, also a lawman, into a distant cad. He calls off a once-budding romance during a phone conversation in which we see and hear only Miss Bullock, extremely appealing while sitting on her kitchen counter and taking the rejection with wistful resignation.

Two comedy assets from the original are also gone: Candice Bergen and Michael Caine. Holdovers Heather Burns and William Shatner repeat their roles as winning contestant Cheryl and master of ceremonies Stan Fields, but there’s little interaction with Miss Bullock because they become hostages to a criminal gang. Gracie must help rescue them from a base of operations in Las Vegas.

It’s about a year after the first case by this point, and Gracie has spent the time traveling as a bureau figurehead, adorning talk shows and book signings and cultivating a love affair with America at large. The bureau has even engaged an ostentatiously homosexual stylist named Joel (Diedrich Bader) to tag along. He volunteers makeup and wardrobe tips between self-referential lewd quips.

Under the circumstances, it might make more sense to adjust to Gracie as a former agent and aspiring talk-show personality, but the filmmakers want her to remain a crime-fighting duckling-swan.

Although romance has failed, they have a substitute in mind: bosom partnership with an agent named Sam Fuller, played by Regina King. She enters as a hostile loose cannon, throttling male sparring partners in the FBI gym. Star and designated sidekick trade insults while getting acquainted. Ultimately, they come to an understanding over chokeholds.

The overblown hostility takes such a turn for the chummy that sarcastic spectators may wonder if Gracie is contemplating a special sort of partnership with Sam. People in Hollywood can get a little confused while trying to hustle both the mainstream audience and the hometown homosexual lobbies.

During their gaudiest undercover interlude, Gracie and Sam doll up for an impromptu act as female impersonators at a Vegas club called Oasis. Miss King gets to mimic Tina Turner, while Miss Bullock simulates a feathered chorine. By this juncture, it’s impossible to tell whether the movie still has a plot to follow or has decided to masquerade as a promotional feature for Las Vegas. That’s also a frequent source of confusion when Hollywood feels like embracing its own casino capital.

Never a class act, “Miss Congeniality 2” reminds you that “splashier and wackier” is seldom a foolproof formula for a sequel. The treatment of male characters, particularly in the Las Vegas office of the FBI, supposedly entrusted to Treat Williams, is so cavalier that you wonder what a thoroughly henpecked agency would be like.

Maybe that will become obvious in “Miss Congeniality 3.” The major lingering question is where one stands with Sandra Bullock in decade two of her career as a cinematic sweetheart. She’s easier to like than most of her peers, but if this rattletrap is any indication, the next few years could get more and more alienating. World peace? In this context? Gimme a break.

*-1/2

TITLE: “Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous”

RATING: PG-13 (Facetious depictions of physical violence; recurrent sexual allusions and comic vulgarity)

CREDITS: Directed by John Pasquin. Screenplay by Marc Lawrence. Cinematography by Peter Menzies Jr. Production costume design by Deena Appel.

RUNNING TIME: One hour and 55 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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