Uncongenial: Bullock needs to grow up

When reviewing movies, especially those ground out by the Hollywood machine, I have to keep reminding myself of Frank Loesser's words from How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying: "Mediocrity is not a mortal sin."

But when a movie is as screamingly, in-your-face mediocre as Miss Congeniality 2: Armed & Fabulous, its sin must at least be venial.

The first Miss Congeniality had a reasonably original concept, with an awkward FBI agent, Gracie Hart (Sandra Bullock), being magically transformed so she could go undercover as a contestant in the "Miss United States" pageant. The high point of the sequel is supposed to be when Gracie and a fellow agent go undercover in a drag show, impersonating men impersonating women. That might have seemed like a more original steal (from Some Like It Hot and Victor/Victoria) if Connie & Carla hadn't done it a year ago.

The good news is that– although she's headed in that direction– Bullock hasn't yet followed Meg Ryan down the slippery slope of playing "cute" too long and having her fans abandon her in droves because no one wants to watch the girl next door turn into the old woman next door. Bullock, now 40, will have to grow up soon; but at this point her shtick, while tired, still works.

The movie gets off to a so-so start. Only three weeks have passed, but Gracie's notoriety has spread and interferes with her work when she's recognized while trying to be inconspicuous. The agents are in a bank trying to catch an unlikely band of thieves who dress in bad housewife drag that only calls attention to them, and one of Gracie's fans blows her cover.

Now that she's a liability in the field, Gracie's boss (Ernie Hudson) offers her a new assignment, to be "the new face of the FBI" as a public relations ploy. Ten months later, she has a (ghost-written) book out and is touring to promote it.

When William Shatner and pageant winner Heather Burns are kidnapped in Las Vegas (supposedly by a loan shark over a gambling debt– how stupid is that?) Gracie is sent there to do PR for the bureau– but not work the case. Going along as her bodyguard is Agent Sam Fuller (Regina King), who has an anger management problem and wouldn't last a week in the real FBI. But at least her name is a good in-joke for film buffs who wouldn't go near a movie like this.

Gracie butts heads with Treat Williams, Special Agent in Charge of the Las Vegas office, who couldn't do more to interfere with her solving the case if he were in cahoots with the criminals. But even this script isn't dumb enough to go there, is it?

Vegas being Vegas, there has to be a celebrity cameo. Since it's supposed to be a surprise, I won't give it away, but if you're actually surprised by the time her face appears on screen, you shouldn't see another movie until you graduate from kindergarten.

Benjamin Bratt, never seen, is written out early on when he dumps Gracie in a long, one-sided phone conversation. He, Michael Caine, and Candice Bergen are missed as their replacements turn in credible performances but lack starpower. A Regis Philbin cameo can go just so far to compensate.

For no apparent reason, the soundtrack features more excerpts from other film scores than one of Quentin Tarantino's movies. Perhaps a "temp track" became permanent at the last minute.

I gave the first Miss Congeniality a passing grade as "insignificant fluff" that Bullock was able to make work. Well, fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice...