Friday, June 20, 2008

Get Smarter--- 'Missed it by That Much'

I must confess a guilty please. I used to enjoy the old Get Smart TV spy spoof. I even like the cartoon remake called 'Inspector Gadget' which I watched with my children. I was hoping for some more low camp humor and general slapstick fun, in a summer season of otherwise rather droll or abysmal fare. And, I suppose, be careful what you wish for, because I got it-- to an extent. And furthermore, I love Alan Arkin, Terrence Stamp, and Steve Carrell is fun, and then there is Anne Hathaway whose name suggests she belongs in Shakespeare, not slapstick. So, why am I not entirely amused? Well first the plot Synopsis from Warner---

"Maxwell Smart (Steve Carell) is on a mission to thwart the latest plot for world domination by the evil crime syndicate known as KAOS. When the headquarters of U.S. spy agency Control is attacked and the identities of its agents compromised, the Chief (Alan Arkin) has no choice but to promote his ever-eager analyst Maxwell Smart, who has always dreamt of working in the field alongside stalwart superstar Agent 23 (Dwayne Johnson). Smart is partnered instead with the lovely-but-lethal veteran Agent 99 (Anne Hathaway). Given little field experience and even less time, Smart-armed with nothing but a few spy-tech gadgets and his unbridled enthusiasm-must thwart the doomsday plans of KAOS head Siegfried (Terence Stamp)." --© Warner Bros.

This movie is PG-13 because of a good deal of sexual humor, sometimes hardly covert (unlike the original show for the most part), and there is the usual quotient of violence. The film only lasts 1 hour 50 minutes, and is filmed in visually enjoyable locales such as L.A., D.C. and Moscow (and perhaps elsewhere in Russia also). I suppose any film that has Mel Brooks as a consultant will be required to have a lot of physical and visual humor, and I suppose as well that since the original Get Smart was in some ways a spoof of a spoof (namely of Peter Seller's Pink Panther films), we should not expect plot consistency, great wit, and characters noted for their bon vivant. And we don't get them either. O.K. we do have a fun cameo with Bill Murray as an agent hiding in a tree next to the reflection pool in Washington.

But let us say what was fun about this light, and light weight summer fare. First of all, I like Steve Carrell, he is capable of being quite funny, and to his credit though he uses some of Don Adams famous lines ('Would you believe....' and 'Missed it by that much') he does not attempt to imitate the voice pattern or intonation of Adams, which would have seemed very contrived and forced. Secondly, I also like Anne Hathaway, she puts the hot back in 99, as in agent 99 and Fahrenheit 99.

The problem is, alas, that the plot is so thin and threadbare that between the set piece humor situations, the movie as a movie is not moving, or even plausible. One of the best scenes is the dance scene in Russia, with certain hilarious and implausible moves, and the scene with the agents dodging the lasers is pretty hilarious as well as is the scene with the miniature cross bow. But in some cases the sight gags and pratfalls sadly just fall flat. A few of the zingers of Carrell do work, but most of them are too predictable. I did enjoy seeing one of the gargantuan Bond characters once more in a film, making even Lurch look little. And there is something a bit odd about this remake, namely Maxwell Smart doesn't just get lucky, he is actually pretty smart in places in this film. This can only be called 'out of character' or Maxwell Smart gets a makeover.

The problem with a movie that tries to redo a beloved earlier fictional character is that of course comparisons will be made, and what was once innovative, on rewind becomes innocuous. And one has to say that there is probably too much sexual humor and innuendo to make this a truly wholesome family film. I am not surprised that the reviews thus far have been split right down the middle between thumbs up and thumbs down. The movie has the right components and participants to be a funny movie, but it needed a decidedly better script. In the end weighing the pros and cons, I must say in the words of Max--- "Sorry chief, missed it by that much." But I also have to say "Would you believe this movie is better than most that have come out in the last 45 days, except Iron Man, and to a lesser extent Prince Caspian (and an even lesser extent Indiana Jones)". Maybe Wall-E will intervene and restore order to the comedic celluloid universe. Lord knows the Incredible Bulk, err Hulk doing his mean green giant thing didn't do it.


Keen Reader said...

"I suppose as well that since the original Get Smart was in some ways a spoof of a spoof (namely of Peter Seller's Pink Panther films)"

The Pink Panther films were about a French policeman. Was Get Smart not more a spoof of James Bond, The Man From UNCLE, and the whole spy/secret agent genre?

Ben Witherington said...

You are right of course that it was also a spoof of the Man from Uncle, the Avengers, and James Bond--- all of the above. But the humour and goofiness was most like the Sellers films.


cgl said...

There is always "The Black Knight" to put your hope in.

cgl said...

Actually, I beleive The Dark Knight is the correct title that I am hoping is summer movie redemption.

Skybalon said...

Well... you may recall that the first Pink Panther film was simply a risque Blake Edwards "sex farce" and the subsequent films maintained that tone. That is, after all, Blake Edwards' specialty, for lack of a better term. I wouldn't disagree that a comic genius like Peter Sellers can make an otherwise silly bit comically genius, but it would be important to remember that even the best actors/comics are not going to make gold out of garbage. Just watch the oeuvre of Pink Panther pics to see they need more than Sellers to be good or to really be called "Sellers' films."

To get a sense of the kind of humor Sellers was about, check out episodes of "The Goon Show". He was much more about biting satire and absurd humor than simple slapstick. And as fun as slapstick can be, it can't carry everything- consider even the 3 Stooges are best in short doses. As funny and versatile as Carell has shown himself to be, it's asking a lot that he carry the whole movie- ironic since it's a rather empty movie.

Also, in addition to being almost two hours of silliness, the recent remake lacks the poignant critique of Cold War absurdities on which Mel Brooks hung the jokes. Get Smart, the series was prototypical Brooks- made for TV of course. Brooks wasn't simply winking at the conventions of the "spy flick" but offering up a funhouse mirror of sorts- forcing us to examine how absurd we might appear. It was goofy and comic, but at its heart, it was not light weight fare.

Given our present context, a comedy, that leveled a critical eye at our geo-political concerns would also not be light weight and would likely be overlooked, dismissed, or even reviled by mainstream audiences. I'm thinking of Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo or Team America World Police here.

And I can't wait for the Dark Knight as well.

Pat R said...

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