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Strip this bloated franchise of its crown

Even taking into account its status as a prefabricated, by-the-numbers sequel, Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous doesn't quite qualify as opium for the masses. Instead, it's more like two weak hits from a cracked bong.

The 2000 box office hit Miss Congeniality, in which a sting operation forced unkempt FBI agent Gracie Hart (Sandra Bullock) to pose as an beauty pageant contestant, wasn't much of a movie, but at least it benefited from the presence of unflappable Michael Caine, who stole the show as the fashion consultant hired to transform Gracie from a tomboy into a glamour queen. But Caine isn't around for this follow-up, and his presence is sorely missed — unless you think Regis Philbin is a worthy substitute (I don't).

Like Father of the Bride Part II and Sister Act 2: Back In the Habit, this is the sort of dull sequel that's sure to be politely dismissed as merely routine, when it's that very sense of rampaging mediocrity — of flagrant laziness and audience disregard oozing out of every blemished pore — that renders it all but unwatchable. Many bad movies at least make an effort; this one is content to simply lay there, like a fat tick gorged on the blood of complacent moviegoers.

Director John Pasquin, normally happy to flood the marketplace with Tim Allen stink bombs (Joe Somebody, Jungle 2 Jungle, The Santa Clause), takes a break from his divine mission to helm this comparable drivel, yet ultimately he can't be held the most responsible for this mess. For that, we have to turn to screenwriter Marc Lawrence, who used up his half-dozen good ideas in the first Congeniality film and is now running on empty. His screenplay is, in a word, wretched, with no feel for characterization, dialogue or plot development.

The storyline, which kicks off a few weeks after the events of the first film, centers around the notion that, because of her pageant exposure, Gracie Hart is too famous to take part in any more undercover operations. (The great minds at the FBI only figure this out after they send Gracie on a botched mission where her presence ends up endangering the lives of civilians and agency cohorts.) Reluctantly, she agrees to give up that line of work and instead serve as the "face" of the FBI, spending all her time taking part in photo ops and book signings. But while she's in Las Vegas for a p.r. tour, she learns that the pageant winner and the emcee (returning co-stars Heather Burns and William Shatner) have been kidnapped, so she ditches her ceremonial duties in an effort to apprehend the criminals and save her friends.

Miss Congeniality 2 is a textbook example of formula filmmaking at its most dim-witted level. When Gracie's superior (Ernie Hudson) comments that Gracie will be the most famous celebrity in Vegas, we use the half-second pause that follows to predict that the punchline will involve Wayne Newton. Voila: "Unless Wayne Newton's in town!" (And since this movie involves the FBI, the equally predictable J. Edgar Hoover cross-dressing crack also makes an appearance.) At another juncture, a woman states that her son has a weakness for the "sluts." Of course, we know she means "slots" — she clarifies this a moment later — so why does she say "sluts" when the rest of her enunciation is crystal-clear? Because that's how desperately Lawrence wants the audience to laugh at his paper-thin material.

Equally witless are the characters, starting with the offensive inclusion of a gay stylist named Joel (Diedrich Bader). Joel is the typical homosexual caricature found in bad mainstream movies, a swishy guy who tingles at the thought of getting zapped in the genitals by a taser gun and who's equally excited at the suggestion of being sent to prison so he can get anally raped on a regular basis. Reliable Regina King (last seen as one of Ray Charles' conquests in Ray) does what she can with the role of the mad black woman (this one sans diary) who becomes Gracie's partner, while the fine actor Treat Williams, more often than not ill-used by Hollywood, is wasted in the role of a humorless FBI chief.

Finally, there are the obligatory appearances by waning celebrities portraying themselves. Oddly, cameo whores Larry King and Jay Leno are conspicuously absent, but in their place, we get Philbin and Dolly Parton, the latter involved in a chase sequence in which she's replaced by the most obvious body double I've seen in years.

After the screening, fellow critics who cooed and gurgled approvingly throughout most of the movie sensed my disdain and cracked, "Not enough decapitations for you?" — a reference to my appreciation of Sin City, a movie they disliked. Well, even I would agree that beheading Marc Lawrence and John Pasquin might be unwarranted, but would a few taser gun jolts to the crotch be acceptable punishment?

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