Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Get Smart


The latest film to make the unsteady transition from television to big-screen started out as a series collaboration between comedy power-houses Buck Henry and Mel Brooks, and is fondly remembered as a sharply-written schtick-filled send-up of the guns and gadgets formula of the James Bond series, starring Don Adams as Maxwell Smart, Agent 86 of CONTROL (the enemy agency was named KAOS). I have fond memories of the sure-fire laugh from my father at the finely-timed closing of a security door on Max's nose at the tail-end of each episode.

When it was announced that "Get Smart!" (the series had an exclamation mark, which seems to have gotten lost somewhere) would be made into a new film, * and that Steve Carell would be playing Smart, it seemed either a very shrewd move or a very bad one. Carell would be hard-pressed to match Adams' energy or his high nasal whine of a voice, and it's hard to imagine Smart without either of those.

Don Adams' crack timing was also something that would be hard-pressed to duplicate--it was Adams alone that made the constantly re-used "Cone of Silence" gag work, with just a razor's edge of silence before his "Eh?!" and that was done in two-shot with the unflappable set-up of Ed Platt as CONTROL's Chief. Plus, "Get Smart!" was sharply written--a "MAD" magazine pastiche of parody, comedy schtick, slapstick and pop-culture references (along with enough sure-fire repeatable gags from Henry and Brooks to fill out the half-hour). Even at its worst, "Get Smart!" was sure to entertain.

So, one approached the movie with hopeful skepticism. Carell has failed as often as he's succeeded, and the ghost of
Don Adams would be tough to emulate or shake off. Fortunately, there's not a problem; "Get Smart" is hilarious, in many of the same ways as the series, but also with its own unique breezy rhythm that ekes out belly-laughs from sharp writing and performances. Only the casting of Terence Stamp (never a good clown) as KAOS operative Siegfried disappoints (series Siegfried Bernie Kopell makes a too-brief appearance). Anne Hathaway manages to be funny, vulnerable and commanding as Agent 99 (at one point donning a Barbara Feldon page-boy wig) who's a bit more Emma Peel than the original. Alan Arkin is a fine Chief, dry as dust, and "The Rock" a pleasant comedian. Bill Murray makes a cameo as the CONTROL agent, played by David Ketchum, that always hid in lockers, mail-boxes, garbage-bins.

But it's Carell's movie. The only gags he can't make work are, strangely enough, the old reliable ones from the show, and they're trucked out as if they were some sort of duty that had to be performed, reluctantly. But he does re-create the Smart persona in his own style--arrogant, foolish, running on fumes rather than juice, and all-too-willing to ignore his failings. But played sedately, and with an odd sort of rabbit-y vulnerability. He makes Max work, and that's a bit of a miracle, given Adams' identification with the character.

It's a good lark, trotting out bits from Bond and other spy-movies to make fun of (like a complicated fight in free-fall, a "Jaws"-type comic villain, and the gadgets), but in its final half-hour loses its good will with an extended chase involving planes, trains and automobiles that could have easily been sacrificed to get to the finale borrowed from "The Man Who Knew Too Much." If, "Get Smart" had stayed smart...and funny...without depending on the too-familiar formula of vehicular mayhem, it would have been one of the more refreshing comedies to have come to theaters in a long time.

Missed it by that much.

Would you believe "Get Smart" is a "Cinematic Triumph"?

Would you believe it's the "Must-See Comedy Hit of the Summer"?

How about a "Cult Film for Blue-Haired Old Ladies?"

"Get Smart" is a rental, a very good rental, but a rental. Maybe buy some popcorn from the store.

* There already has been a "Get Smart!" movie, starring original Max, Don Adams, called "The Nude Bomb," which tempting fate with that title, proved to be a bomb at the box-office.


Patrick Roberts said...

Get Smart looks okay overall, good cast... but Steve Carell seems to be veering more and more toward a predictable, slapstick-style humor

Yojimbo_5 said...

Some of my favorite comedians do slapstick--to dismiss it is to dismiss Chaplin, Harold Lloyd and Keaton (Done at peril). And to make a movie of "Get Smart!" and not do slap-stick is to deny part of what made that series a success.

Carell is an interesting bird. Capable of low comedy and subtle comedy, as adept at drama as the funny stuff and able to get the chocolate in the peanut butter, as it were. I thought he wouldn't be a good Maxwell Smart, and was pleased that he was able to twist it to his particular gifts.

As far as him "veering more and more toward a predictable, slapstick-style humor," I don't see it, unless you give undo weight to the mis-begotten "Evan Almighty."

And in the spirit of full disclosure, the link that Patrick imbedded in his post (not something that can be done accidentally with HTML) leads to his movie blog that looks at films with an eye toward evangelism for his religious beliefs.