|Get Smart (2008)|
|Theatrical Movie Reviews Theatrical|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Friday, 20 June 2008|
Near the end of “Get Smart,” Steve Carell as Maxwell Smart, CONTROL agent, dons a sports jacket—narrow lapels, narrow tie—and heads off in a red 1960s Sunbeam convertible, just like Don Adams drove in the old TV sitcom on which this movie is based. After about a block, the car shudders to a halt; it just can’t make it.
To a large degree, neither can this movie. It’s occasionally genuinely funny, but one thing it is not is a “Get Smart” movie. Max Smart has been changed far too much. On the series, he was a cockamamie blend of James Bond and Inspector Clouseau—determined to succeed, utterly confident with no reason to be, and quick to justify his blunders. (“Missed it by THAT much.”) He was brisk, no-nonsense, full of himself and vaguely attracted to Agent 99 (Barbara Feldon), who loved him despite everything.
Even though Alan Arkin, who really did play Clouseau, is on hand, and though the credits acknowledge some form of help from Mel Brooks and Buck Henry, who created Maxwell Smart, Our Hero simply is not the TV Maxwell Smart. At the beginning, unlike TV’s endlessly klutzy (but ultimately triumphant) Max, Carrell’s Max is actually very competent at his job, which is an analyst for the spy organization CONTROL. (He lives by post-it notes.) He’s forever analyzing incoming information, presenting it to The Chief (Alan Arkin) in very lengthy reports, but earnestly yearning to be an agent out in the field. It’s actually touching when the Chief has to turn down Max’s latest request for a field post. But since when was Max Smart touching?
Granted, transposing sitcom characterizations to the big screen is a touchy proposition at best; few of these expansions have worked, though there are exceptions—but those played by their own rules. (“The Brady Bunch Movie,” the first “Addams Family.”) The surprise, and the dismaying element, of “Get Smart” is that it’s occasionally a basically straight spy adventure. And Max Smart is occasionally a good, competent spy—he’s a great shot, for one thing. He just tends to do inept things at times, like fall out of a jetliner without a parachute. (Fortunately, 99 is very good at this sort of thing, and she has a parachute.)
The clunky plot takes a while to get under way. We first see Max interacting with other agents, who regard him with a peculiar blend of affection and scorn. Even superduper Agent 23 (Dwayne Johnson) is fond of Max, perhaps because 23 himself is a bit of a klutz. Technical CONTROL whiz kids Bruce (Masi Oka, on leave from “Heroes”) and Lloyd (Nate Torrence), are sympathetic to Max, but they’re über-nerds.
We also meet international evil genius Siegfried (a completely wasted Terence Stamp), who’s always accompanied by a short, stout assistant, Shtarker (Ken Davitian), apparently because Borat was. (Same guy, too.) Siegfried has some kind of plan for a huge attack on the U.S. The Chief has problems of his own; his boss is the domineering Vice President (Geoff Pierson); clearly this and the ineptitude of the President (James Caan, pretty good despite it all) are jokes aimed at the current Presidential administration, but they add nothing but time to the movie. (But the casting would allow Warners to boast that this finally reunites the stars of “Freebie and the Bean,” Caan and Arkin, but nobody but us film buffs would remember that faded flop.)
Meanwhile, the evil organization KAOS—Seigfried works for them—has managed to attack CONTROL’s Washington DC headquarters, and now knows the names and faces of every CONTROL agent out in the field. The Chief has no recourse but to appoint Maxwell Smart field Agent 86. He’ll be accompanied by Agent 99 (Anne Hathaway), safe because she recently underwent extensive facial reconstruction. (We see a “before” photo—why isn’t it of Barbara Feldon?) 99 is like most agents, feeling completely superior to Max, but she sets out with him for Russia. (There’s a handful of scenes shot in Moscow).
They have adventures and stuff, interrupted by little mishaps like Max forgetting that when using a blowgun, you first don’t inhale THROUGH the blowgun. They go to a lavish ball thrown by a Russian KAOS bigwig, who immediately romances 99. Max is left to his own devices, which includes dancing with a very fat woman.
This scene is typical of the whole movie—partly inspired, mostly inept. It turns out that both the fat woman and Max are terrific on the dance floor, but this basically good idea is completely deflated by the inept direction of Peter Segal, who hasn’t a clue about good comedy timing. Carell does, of course, but he’s at the mercy of the director and editor.
Segal is a peculiar case. His movies zip along—even “Get Smart” doesn’t feel like the nearly two hours it is—but the funny scenes are almost always badly mishandled. Segal directed unfunny comedies like "Naked Gun 33 1/3," "Tommy Boy." "Anger Management" and the wretched "Nutty Professor II." He did okay with "50 First Dates"--but the more serious parts of that movie worked far better than those intended to be hilarious (unless your idea of wit includes a vomiting walrus). He probably does his work on time and on budget, doesn’t argue with the studio suits, and is a pleasant guy on the set. But he’s inept at directing comedy. I am horrified that he’s in line to direct the “Captain Marvel” movie.
The screenplay is by Tom J. Astle and Matt Ember, both of whom have written for TV sitcoms but who have very little movie experience. The screenplay is completely ordinary, full of borrowed ideas and jokes that go nowhere. That it’s funny at all is more due to the cast than to the people behind the camera.
The movie includes ideas that seem to be there solely because spy movies often have these kinds of ideas, such as that Siegfried is being handled by a mysterious boss of his own. But this secret boss is all too easily to identify from the cast at hand. A few well-known comedy actors turn up for a scene or two, including Bill Murray and Kevin Nealon, but they’re given very little to do.
Steve Carell could have played Max by doing an impression of Don Adams. We know he can do that sort of thing—he did an uncanny impersonation of Paul Lynde in the “Bewitched” movie—but for some reason, the makers of this film are trying to distance themselves from the series, while still bringing in most of the catch phrases and ideas from the old show—“Sorry about that, chief,” “The old [whatever] trick,” “Would you believe…” I didn’t hear “…and loving it,” but I didn’t long for it, either. But then they make Max very different from the series.
Of course, they may have been guided by the old “Get Smart” movie that did reunite the series cast. But that movie, “The Nude Bomb” (some have said it had the most appropriate title in movie history), was a major flop. Who wants to identify with that? But then again, why make a “Get Smart” movie if you’re only going to include the window dressing from the series and not adopt the basic approach, or recreate the characters?
The movie does build to a dizzying climax that includes a bomb placed at the Disney Hall, set to go off on the last notes of “The Ode to Joy;” Max, 99 and the Chief chase the main villain by plane, car and train. There are lots of spectacular stunts and action in this sequence—but that’s not much like TV’s “Get Smart,” either.
Maybe the biggest question remains: Buck Henry and Mel Brooks are still out there, still working. Couldn’t they have been approached to write at least one draft of the script? Supposedly Brooks contributed some gags to the opening sequence (all those swiftly opening and closing doors that Max marches confidently through), but the movie needed more of their help than that.
Those who will enjoy “Get Smart” the most are, unfortunately, not those who remember the series the best. You’re much more likely to have a good time at this movie if you’ve never seen the series at all.