Monday, June 16, 2008

"Get Smart" -- * * 1/2

Peter Segal's movie version of the 1965-1970 spy spoof series "Get Smart" is neither a particularly strong representation of what's beloved about the show, nor a joyless cash-grab that coasts on its name-brand familiarity (e.g.: "Bewitched"). Rather, it's a slick, broad, fun enough time at the movies that I'm right on the verge of recommending, but not quite all the way there. As a sizable fan of both Steve Carell and the original television series, I enjoyed the movie overall, but found it hard to ignore just how hit-and-miss and formulaic it was. An apparent love for its source material by the filmmaker, a perfectly cast Carell in the titular role, a fast-moving narrative, and about a 55% joke success rate, adds up to a generally satisfying summer comedy that isn't likely to knock anyone's socks off nor seriously underwhelm. Those pleased with the film adaptations of "Starsky and Hutch" and "Miami Vice," and underwhelmed by, say, "I Spy" and "Bewitched," should find this a fairly happy medium, as long as expectations are kept subsided.

For a spy movie, even a tremendously goofy one, the plot here is surprisingly sparse. Obviously, the proceedings center around Maxwell Smart (Carell), an eager information analyst working for U.S. spy agency C.O.N.T.R.OL. Smart, who has both "Russian Chatter" and ABBA's "Take a Chance" on his iPod, longs to be an agent out in the field, and looks up to the heroic Agent 23 (Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson). After he aces his agent exams and C.O.N.T.R.O.L.'s enemy agency, K.A.O.S., kills off almost every C.O.N.T.R.O.L. agent, The Chief (Alan Arkin) finally grants Max a promotion. Max is paired with Agent 99 (Anne Hathaway), a sleek, hyper-efficient agent who has recently undergone major plastic surgery to make her look like Anne Hathaway. Together, the two must locate K.A.O.S.'s leader, Siegfriend (Terence Stamp), and take him down. Many set-pieces that only tangentially have to do with the plot ensure, and it all culminates in a race-to-the-bomb-equipped-location climax set to "Ode to Joy."

Like the show it's based on, the film's tone is consistently goofy. Even in the action moments that work, there's no real sense of danger, and we're never asked to take anything seriously. Thankfully, the movie throws enough at us that, even with all the pitfalls, I was laughing or smiling an awful lot (and usually at Carell). The chief set-piece that really works (and the filmmakers clearly know it, judging by their desperate closing of the film with repeating it) is one of Max retreating to the lavatory aboard a mid-flight airplane, and attempting to escape from his shackles. His continual incompetence is as stupid as it is hilarious, and the essence of what the character should be. Some of the briefer, sillier moments that resemble the show's sense of humor (a bit involving the "cone of silence") are among the movie's strongest, as well as throwaway lines/jokes like one Arkin tosses off about existentialism, and Max's referring to Ryan Seacrest as "American's Sweetheart." The physical stuff really works, like the phone-throwing gag from the trailer, and the movie deserves commendation for amazingly making me laugh at its one reliance on gross-out humor (a truly disgusting puke joke), which I generally abhor.

The jokes that do miss thankfully aren't of the groan-worthy, thudding variety, but just of the staring-at-the-screen-acknowledgement-that-that-joke-didn't-work sort. It's noticeable that the ones that particularly flounder are the big, scripted set-pieces; a bit where Max is mistaken for shoe-bomber on board an airplane falls flat (as well as brings to mind the most recent "Harold and Kumar" film), as well as sequence where Max dances with a morbidly obese woman -- while "size 6" Hathaway steams -- at a banquet. Still, in each of these, Carell manages to shine through, making the best out of any material he's given. Other stuff of the broader variety, such as a head-shaking bit involving a squealing, cartoonish pig, that don't feature Carell, aren't as successful. Then there's other stuff where you may chuckle at, but not feel good about it almost immediately after (a scene where Ken Davitian is on the receiving end of simulated anal sex again after "Borat" comes to mind).

It was fairly evident from the moment his casting was announced that Carell was perfect for this role, and sure enough, he's aces in it. Taking his bumbling incompetence (and just a pinch of awkwardness) from "The Office's" Michael Scott, Carell manages to play off his well-known persona without quite playing "Steve Carell" again and making Maxwell Smart a unique character. Max isn't imbued with depth -- no one here is -- but Carell plays him brilliantly, bringing to mind the perfect matching of actor-and-character of Robert Downey, Jr. as Tony Stark. Anyone who's been paying attention to the film world in the last few years realizes that Carell is a fantastic comic who can make iffy jokes work and turns horrifically awful movies into merely bad ones (e. g. "Evan Almighty"). I laughed a lot here at just-okay lines because of him, and I don't know if many other actors could actually make puke jokes or fat-suit gags (Max is given a formerly-fat backstory) funny to me. Still, the movie gives him a wealth of broad material for him to run with, and he never for a second seems like he's slumming or pushing to try to make lazy material work. Aside from being effortlessly hilarious, Carell has a warmth and likability to him that just makes you smile, and works to great advantage in making Max appear like an actual person, not just a caricature. From his warnings in research presentations, "the next 100 pages can get a little bit dry," to his playful banter with Hathaway, he's the perfect fit for Maxwell Smart and he goes a long way towards making the movie work.

Hathaway is sexier here than she's ever been in a movie before, but unfortunately, no less boring. She's not overtly bad -- she never is -- but I'm still waiting for a movie where she exudes any sort of charm or charisma and doesn't just reek of blandness. Johnson's actually in the film very little; he appears in just a handful of scenes, and doesn't get much to do, but he handles the material pretty well (particularly his supercool, cocky, slo-mo entrance which culminates with him walking into a wall). Arkin seems to be having fun here, and has noticeable chemistry with Carell, even if the role doesn't ask much of him; still, it's hard not to smile hearing the actor utter "I've been waiting for this since Nixon!" as he tackles the Vice President. Stamp clearly hasn't enjoyed himself on screen in a few decades, but even so, he still manages to get laughs with his monotone delivery as Siegfried. James Caan turns up in a few funny scenes as a Bush-clone President who pronounces nuclear "nucular" and is seen reading "Goodnight Moon to a class of elementary schoolers; it was done better by Quaid in "American Dreamz," but Bush is an easy enough target to make fun of, that Caan still made me chuckle. The two "comedy teams" on the sidelines don't fare so well; "Heroes"'s Masi Oka and Nate Torrence (resembling a fatter Nick Swardson) are more annoying than funny, while David Koechner and Terry Crews are brilliantly paired together as a team, and then get very little to do

Despite having Mel Brooks and Buck Henry on board as consultants, it's tough to say exactly what diehard fans of the TV show will think of the movie. They may not be pleased with some of the dumber jokes and action scenes, but I found enough here in the spirit of the show, as well as knowing references, to be satisfied on that front. The opening credits, where we see Max marching through the never-ending series of metal security gates on way to phone booth as the familiar theme music plays, is pretty much perfect, and starts the movie off right. Though we have to wait till the 84-minute mark to see any reference of the famous shoe-phone, such touches as Agent 13's brief appearance inside a tree (a good cameo by a comedic genius) and Max's using Noodnik Shpilkis as an alias as one point, should generate enough goodwill among purists. My only real issue with movie/show incongruity is that Max is maybe just a bit more competent than he really should be. The show's Maxwell Smart had a Clouseau-like ineptness that made his inadvertent success all the more hilarious. Here, Max is generally depicted as a clumsy-but-efficient agent who uses unconventional methods to get the job done; his escape from a jail cell late in the proceedings is amusingly ridiculous, but downright jarring in its competence.

"Get Smart" is perpetually very broad and very silly, and for what it's trying to do, it basically works; I'd give it a favorable/fresh rating, but by a hair. In the summer movie season, known for soulless money-makers, the movie doesn't bring anything drastically new or different to the table, but it offers enough mid-range laughs to at least merit a matinee showing at your multiplex. My crowd seemed to eat it up (there was hearty laughter throughout and applause at the end), and while it probably won't be huge, I think it will hit with audiences, if not critics. Okay, so the film isn't particularly witty, and doesn't cleverly take "Get Smart" into the year 2008 (political subtext is virtually nil), but it's always entertaining -- even when it's not working -- and I have difficulty imagining even the most negative of Nancys emerging from the theater angry they watched it.

"Get Smart" opens in theaters nationwide this Friday, June 20th.


Anonymous patrick said...

Get Smart looks okay overall, though Steve Carell seems to be veering more and more toward slapstick-style humor

8:01 AM  

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