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Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous

It's official. This sequel to the very, very mildly amusing Miss Congeniality is very, very bad. It was widely panned during its theatrical release, probably because it makes you wish the word "sequel" had never entered the English language. The story, such as it is, follows the madcap crime-stopping adventures of FBI agent, Gracie Hart (Sandra Bullock) who became famous when she posed as a beauty contestant in Miss Congeniality, and wrote a book about her experiences. As Armed & Fabulous opens, she finds that she's unable to work undercover anymore because fans recognize her. Furthermore, her boyfriend from the first film (he was played by yummy Benjamin Bratt and, boy, do we miss him) dumps her by telephone - despite her offer to study sex manuals - leaving Gracie at a professional and romantic dead end. She quickly agrees to become the Bureau's newest publicist, the "new face of the FBI," and, quicker than you can say "Cosmo Girl," she's wearing designer clothes and shilling her employer on morning talk shows, accompanied by her continuously angry assistant, Agent Sam Fuller, (Regina King) who hates her. When Gracie's beauty pageant friend, the reigning Miss U.S., (Heather Burns) is kidnapped in Vegas along with the pageant emcee (William Shatner), Gracie is sent in to provide PR support, but we all know that she'll solve the crime herself, in spite of the corrupt local Bureau Chief (Treat Williams). We also know that (a) she'll drop the talk shows and regain her confidence as an agent, (b) she and tough-cooky Agent Fuller will become friends, and (c) she'll ultimately learn some important Life Lessons (retch). This pat little formula could, I suppose, have been successful if there was any humor along the way but there's not. The director, John Pasquin, also created the Tim Allen yuck-fest Santa Clause, so maybe quality is a little too much to expect from this effort.

Pasquin aside, Bullock must take much of the blame because she's in virtually every scene. She has recently shown herself to be capable of gritty drama (Crash) but something terrible happens when she gets behind the wheel of a screwball comedy. She tries hard for the kind of self-deprecating sarcasm that Bill Murray does so well, but great comics like Murray always make funny look easy, something that Bullock with her strained, toothy grin and overactive hand gestures, tends to forget. And it doesn't help that screenwriter Marc Lawrence has given her some pretty poisonous lines to work with. (Warning: this film contains one-liners about enemas, push-up bras, the funny way that "slot machines" can be misinterpreted if the "o" sounds like a "u", plus exaggerated New York Jewish accents -- do not ever attempt the last unless you are Woody Allen). Of course, some of Gracie's wild gestures and bad accents may be Bullock's way of expressing embarrassment about her role; Lord knows I feel embarrassed to admit that I watched the whole thing.

As for the rest of the cast, Regina King stands out with talent and class even though she's stuck with the role of gratuitously angry black woman. And the stereotyping never ends; in addition to pissed-off Agent Fuller, there's Gracie briefly pretending to be an obnoxious, nagging Jewish mother, and a sissy, gay fashion consultant who can't stop talking about clothes. But King rises above all that and delivers the best lines of the film when she stops Gracie's feeble attempts at hip-hop speech. William Shatner, for better or worse, does the self-mocking persona he's perfected in his ads.

Many reviewers have already more or less eviscerated A & F but not enough has been said about its crawling pace so I'll take this opportunity to mention that this is the slowest film I've seen in a long time. The full, Las Vegas kidnapping scenario takes forever to set up - at least 15 minutes of flaccid dialogue could be cut - and then it turns out that a crime caper isn't even the main point. This is really a wannabe morality tale dressed up as a wannabe comedy: Gracie must ditch her designer duds and plastic smile and learn that it's best to be real. Her moment of truth finally (finally!) comes when she instigates a brutal brawl with Fuller in the airport. As they strangle each other and destroy Gracie's pretty hairdo, she pauses, shakes her messed-up tresses and croaks: "I feel like a woman again!" Are women so threatened by nice clothes and makeup that only an uglifying slugfest with another female can reassure them that they're authentic? A&F seems determined to deliver this peculiar message but most women probably don't need it: it's a case of grrrl power gone wrong.

Bad jokes, bad acting, bad plot - what's to like? At least I like the sound. Armed and Fabulous is the type of film that relies heavily on soundtrack to tell the story so it's got quite a roster of female empowerment tunes. The retro soul/funk hits like Carl Carlton's "She's a Bad Mama Jama" and Patti LaBelle's "New Attitude", plus the more modern tunes like Pink's "Trouble" all need a good, thumping bass and, thank God, they get one.

But that's about all I can say about the Disc because there's hardly anything on it besides the film. The studio apparently decided not to try very hard with this dog. There's no “Director's Commentary”, no “behind the scenes”, no explanations of stunts. The only "extras" are "Missing Scenes" (as poor as the rest of the film), options for subtitles in English, French, and Spanish, and the theatrical trailer that gives away all of the (few) potentially good moments. Oh, and there's an ad/preview before the film for an upcoming Seinfeld on DVD. The preview clips reminded me of how funny Seinfeld was at its best, which only served to make A&F seem even un-funnier by comparison.