A film review by Craig J. Koban
2008, PG-13, 110 mins.
2008, PG-13, 110 mins.
Maxwell Smart: Steve Carell / Agent 99: Anne Hathaway / Agent
23: Dwayne Johnson / The Chief: Alan Arkin / Agent 13: Bill
Murray / Siegfried: Terence Stamp / President: James Caan / Hymie:
old “let’s take an already immortally classic and beloved TV show
from the 60’s an adapt it into a lavish, big budget, and glossy summer
movie season cash cow” trick.
you believe…. that this is a rare movie adaptation of small screen
source material that seems...pretty decent?
find myself, much like CONTROL Secret agent, Maxwell Smart, bracing danger
at every corner when I go to see witless and banal TV-to-movie adaptations
(and…lovin’ it), and there has certainly been a relative slew of
stinkers in the last few years. This
is my least favorite genre, considering that it commonly displays
how sincerely bereft of good ideas and ingenuity that Hollywood studios
are these days. Look at the
laundry list of wretched TV-movies: SCOOBY DOO, THE BEVERLEY HILLBILLIES,
THE FLINTSTONES, CHARLIE'S ANGELS, DUDLEY DO-RIGHT, LOST IN SPACE, THE MOD
SQUAD, WILD WILD WEST, I,SPY...Oh…I could go on forever, but I don’t
want to bore you.
this is why I approached the passage of Mel Brooks and Buck Henry’s Emmy
winning 1960’s spy satire, GET SMART, from TV sets to cineplexes with a
considerable amount of hesitation and concern. The series – in both my mind and in the hearts of millions
of fans – is one of the few great American television comedies to emerge
from the late sixties. Dubbed
by Brooks as an “insane combination of James Bond and a Mel Brooks
comedy,” the series – which ran for 138 hilarious episodes from 1965
to 1968 – emerged as a smart, sly, and insidiously funny parody.
The late, great Don Adams is also so universally respected and
remembered for his role of bumbling agent Smart that the thought of anyone
tampering with the greatness of his cunning comic inventiveness and
creativity for the purpose of shamelessly remaking it seems like
sacrilege. After all…we all
remember the abortively terrible PINK
PANTHER remake from few years ago where Steve Martin (a great
comedian in his own right) fell flat on his face trying to appropriate the
comic virtuosity of the legendary Peter Sellers. Bad form, indeed.
my intense resistance…it’s hard to deny that this new GET SMART gets
it right…most of the time. It
certainly deserves to go on a very scant list of successful TV-to-movie adaptations
(like the first ADAMS FAMILY, THE BRADY BUNCH, SERENITY, and STARSKY
AND HUTCH), but it does not achieve the same level of prominence
that some of the best adaptations have achieved (like THE FUGITIVE, MIAMI
VICE, and some of the STAR TREK and MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE films).
However, GET SMART does find a nice dichotomy between being
slavishly faithful to the source material while venturing out on its own
by creating something fresh and revitalizing.
This big screen treatment does not go for broke and radically alter
and tamper with the tone of the original show (like STARSKY AND HUTCH did,
making the 70’s cop show an all-out comedy farce), so on those levels
GET SMART does not really get huge marks for being daring and inventive.
Yet, this should not come as a condemnation of the enterprise,
seeing as the film, no doubt, will appease the show’s many appreciators
while simultaneously getting laughs from agnostic Get Smart-aholics.
On those levels, the film is a reputable achievement.
the film is key here, and I think GET SMART has some wise choices.
Steve Carell has the monumentally thankless task of trying to
recapture Don Adam’s spark, but the most satisfying aspect of Carell’s
take is that he – unlike Steve Martin’s take on Inspector Clousseau
– does not go for all-out mimicry.
Instead of trying to capture all of Adam’s inflections and
personality nuances, Carell makes the role his own by personifying the
part with his own hybrid of goofy and affable charm, an awkward inept
physical dexterity, and a willingness to play things both modestly
straight and remarkably silly. On
those terms, his Maxwell Smart captures the tone and feel of Adam’s
everlasting performance while not trying to duplicate, one-up, or be too
nostalgic towards it. Yes,
the outer façade of Carell is tailored to look like Adams’ 60’s
counterpart, and many of the now classic catchphrases are all here (a lack
there of would be a slap in the face to fans), but Carell fluently slips
into the part by acknowledging its antecedent on TV while making it feel
fresh. That’s what all good
remakes should aspire to achieve.
film essentially gives us the familiar particulars of the GET SMART
universe: characters, relationships, and the roles of the protagonists and
antagonists are resurrected simply and unobtrusively from the TV show.
All of your favorite characters are here while some new ones are
brought in. But, this movie
version also serves as an origin film, of sorts, that shows how Smart
climbed the ranks of CONTROL, a super secret US agency that is like the
CIA, but not as respected. As
we are introduced to Max we see him as a geeky, clumsy, but highly
resourceful and determined, analyst for CONTROL, whose job it is to
decipher conversations that involve agents of KAOS, the evil Russian group
that wants to destroy CONTROL and the US as a whole.
Max thinks he’s really on to something when he reveals hundreds
of pages of exerts from conversations that involve the enemy…eating
course, this mystifies his boss, appropriately named Chief (Alan Arkin,
very funny here), but Max thinks that there is something larger to read
into here: People eat
unhealthy muffins, high in fat and cholesterol, because it makes them feel
better when they experience anxiety and unease.
Of course, being a man that can’t see the forest because the
trees are in the way, Max fails to uncover that the bakery these
conversations occur in is also a front to make uranium for nukes.
desperately yearns to be a field agent, but his predilection to innate
incompetence makes the Chief feel otherwise.
Things change, though, when the offices of CONTROL are ambushed by
a KAOS operative named Siegfried (Terrace Stamp, getting some huge laughs
here by always underplaying his hilarious lines).
Realizing that he can’t send his best agent, 23 (Dwyane “The
Rock" Johnson, blending a strong physical presence with a sardonic
wit) into the field because of his well-known status, the Chief
begrudgingly graduates Max up to the status of field agent.
Max, of course, is elated, but he holds his emotions in and calmly
and coolly requests the cone of silence so he can more discretely reveal
his happiness. Unfortunately,
we all know how notoriously unreliable the cone is, and when Max shrieks
out his elation through a faulty cone, with all of his office colleagues looking on,
it’s one of the film’s funniest gags.
Chief then teams Max (now given the agent moniker "86") with
the very experienced and serious Agent 99 (played well by Anne Hathaway,
mixing a nice comic edge with fetching sultriness). Much like the TV show, complications always arise because of
Max’s ability to complicate every aspect of a mission, but he
nevertheless is able to sometimes save the day because of his own dumb
luck…and also in large part because of 99’s superior skills and
smarts. The story
culminates with the pair discovering the real purpose of Siegfried’s
plan to nuke LA by planting a bomb at the Walt Disney concert hall during
a live performance.
GET SMART generates a lot of comic mileage.
Some scenes are giddy in their merriment, as is Max’s frequent
inability to utilize a special Swiss Army Knife and all of its high tech
gadgets. There is also a very
funny gag with Max trying to sneak into a room that has one of those
hanging bead curtains that gets a large laugh. There is also a very funny sequence where Max tries to talk a
gigantic KAOS agent (played by real life 7’2” behemoth Dalip Singh)
from pulverizing him. Max may
be a complete imbecile when it comes to hand-to-hand combat, but he is
skilled with making a monster of a man cry like a puppy dog.
the other supporting characters are funny as well.
Allan Arkin’s Chief has a sly and under cranked sarcasm, and
Dwayne Johnson gets some big chuckles, especially with how he uses an
office memo, a stapler, and a fellow heckling agent’s forehead to
release some tension. Perhaps
the single funniest character is Stamps' Siegfried, whose nonchalant
manner of being villainous while deadpanning insults to his henchmen in a
calm and collective voice is hilarious.
At one point he turns to one of his underlings and dryly tells him,
“Do you know that you’re the only human being that snores will being
film also some nice, surprising touches.
Hathaway gives a credible turn as her super sexy – yet
emotionally vulnerable – super agent and she and Carell have a nice
chemistry together (Hathaway in particular wisely understands that she’s
the straight woman to Max’s high jinks, and playing the part broadly
would have been wrong). Also,
the film has some moderately well sustained action/stunt set pieces that
would rival any big summer auctioneer.
An early scene involving a villain attacking 99 and Max while
parachuting is energetic and lively, and a climatic chase sequence
involving a truck, a small engine airplane, a train, and Max dangling from
the banner on the plane is kind of exhilarating.
In terms of blending nail biting action with unapologetically silly
pratfalls, GET SMART is highly competent.
the film is comically sluggish at times. For the many jokes that do work, some feel cheaply juvenile
(a gag with Max up in a F-16 jet and a overfilled barf bag is more gross
than funny, as is a sequence involving him trying to get an unconscious
KAOS agent off of a table, which results with Max looking like he’s
humping the man from behind to on-lookers).
There are also some squandered comic opportunities, like Bill
Murray’s painfully brief cameo as Agent 13, whom fans of the show
remember as an agent that disguises himself in the oddest ways possible.
There are also the standard, run-of-the-mill cameos by actors from
the original (this always takes me out of the film because it's such an
obvious, wink-wink distraction). Equally
frustrating is how fantastic the film manages to make Montreal (where it
was shot) not look like Montreal in any way, but when we have the
very famous recreation of Max entering the offices of CONTROL (through a
series of endlessly locking doors and finally to a phone booth) the
obviousness of the CGI here makes you reflect that the realism of the sets
in the TV show were more satisfying.
Yet, when all is said and done, GET SMART manages to placate obsessed fans of the 60’s show while making itself accessible to those that have never seen an episode of the Don Adams/Barbara Feldon spy spoof. On paper, director Peter Segal does not inspire confidence (his resume includes such stinkers as TOMMY BOY, THE NUTTY PROFESSOR II, and two decidedly bad Adam Sandler comedies) but with GET SMART he displays a surprisingly adept hand at crafting a summer comedy blockbuster that understands the comic instincts of the original TV show and harnesses it in this modern update to good effect. The end result is a TV remake with some rough patches, but one that nonetheless is a huge step above other pointlessly mediocre retreads. Sure, this comedy is not flawless and GET SMART misses consistent high hilarity throughout its running time...
only by this much.