Screen gems...with M.V. Moorhead
DVD: Miss Congeniality

Sandra Bullock is Hollywood’s own Miss Congeniality—a favorite who doesn’t take the top prize. Just about everybody likes her, finds her charming, funny, pretty, sexy; good company in general. She’s a movie star, no question about it, except for one little matter—very few people go to her movies.

And why would they? Sure, after a few bit roles she caught on big with her first major leading-lady outing in 1994, opposite Keanu Reeves in “Speed,” and she had a modest hit the following year with “While You Were Sleeping.”

Since then, her track record has been pretty bad, both commercially and critically—disastrous misfires like “Speed 2” and  “Forces of Nature,” or weak-tea offerings like "Hope Floats" or “28 Days.” There’s rarely been anything very wrong with her work in these films, other than the initial error in choice of material.

But in 2000 she finally scored again, with “Miss Congeniality,” which she produced as well as starred in. It was enough of a hit to spawn a sequel, "Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous," in theaters now, as well as a new Deluxe Edition DVD which just ht the stores in time for the sequel's opening.

In most respects the original is a routine movie, but it has a virtue—it doesn’t impede Bullock. This flimsy, slapped-together structure supports her vigorously physical performance and allows her to unleash her sense of goofiness. And that’s all it needs to do.

The set-up: Bullock plays Gracie Hart, an FBI agent and a lifelong tomboy who’s never gotten in touch with her more traditionally feminine side.

When the search for a Unabomber-ish homegrown terrorist leads the Feds to a beauty pageant in San Antonio, Gracie is made to go undercover as a contestant. This is hardship duty for her—she looks good in the swimsuit, but she scowls like a vulture and walks like a hod carrier.

To correct this, the Feds hire a fey pageant consultant, played by Michael Caine, and the film makes an attempt at creating a “Pygmalion”-style relationship between Caine and Bullock. Caine is good company as usual, and he and Bullock generate more of an onscreen buzz than the love angle between Bullock and brawny, bland Benjamin Bratt as a fellow agent.

Most of the dialogue is corny, and director Donald Petrie (“Grumpy Old Men”) never really settles on a comic tone, so broad, silly farce bumps up awkwardly against romantic comedy.

But a couple of the supporting players in more caricatured roles—Candice Bergen as the pageant director and William Shatner as the Bert Parks-ish emcee, who’s given to spouting nonsequiters to which no one pays attention—earn a few laughs, and Heather Burns steals some scenes as a ditzy, insecure contestant from Rhode Island.

Other than that, it falls pretty much to Bullock to carry us through to the end credits, and she gets us there smiling with the comic abandon of her acting. Whether she’s kick-boxing a hanging bag or girlishly taunting Bratt when she can see that he’s attracted to her, she puts her whole body into it, and she’s often genuinely and originally funny.

This is the sort of thing she should be doing more of—the performance is a gem, even if the setting it’s in is inept.

The DVD: The best value in the new Limited Deluxe Edition DVD of "Miss Congeniality" may be the free ticket to the new film, good through May 7 of this year.

Other extras include a bundle of making-of documentaries and outtakes, and two commentary tracks, one by Bullock and screenwriter Marc Lawrence, the other by director Petrie.

There's also a preview of the sequel, and a "Do You Have What It Takes To Be a Beauty Queen?" quiz, hosted by Shatner. I didn't need to take it to know the answer to that question.

"Miss Congeniality" is rated PG-13 for mild language and mild violence. It's probably suitable family entertainment in most households, and lots of younger girls will probably love it.