Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Get Smart

By Elise Nakhnikian

By the time I caught the Get Smart series in reruns, the suave misogyny of spy movies and the casual xenophobia of the Cold War already seemed ludicrous on the face of it, too laughable to need spoofing. To me, secret agent Maxwell Smart’s struggle to appear urbane while stumbling from one pratfall to the next was not so much satire as slapstick, more Inspector Clouseau than “Bond, James Bond.”

So I’m not arguing for the TV show as some kind of brilliant and inviolable text, yet it stuck in my craw to see Smart defeat the bad guys, unmask a double agent, and scoop up the girl (Ann Hathaway’s appealingly tart Agent 99) in the movie version that opened last week. This time around, the ironically named Smart actually lives up to his name. It’s as if the hapless idiot had commandeered the script, turning himself into the kind of can-do action hero he had always tried so hard – and failed so utterly – to be.

True, Smart 2.0 still needs to be rescued every so often by 99, and he makes some pretty boneheaded moves along the way. But somewhere in its transition from an intentionally cheesy TV spoof to a glossy tentpole summer movie, Get Smart morphed from a quirky, borscht-flavored spoof to a standard-issue comic spy caper with some slapstick salted in.

Well, why not? It’s not as if we’re talking about defacing the Dead Sea Scrolls here. Besides, if Mel Brooks, who created the series with Buck Henry, says he likes the movie, who am I to quibble?

Besides, there’s a lot to like here, starting with the cast. Steve Carrell was an inspired choice to play Max. More vulnerable than stiff-necked Don Adams and harder to resist than a house-trained puppy, he gets major mileage here from his gift for making humiliation simultaneously funny and poignant. Alan Arkin’s warmth and his talent for revving up from 0 to 60 emotionally in under a second make him ideal as Max’s perpetually beleaguered mentor, the chief of Control. Terence Stamp is icily elegant as the head of Control’s evil counterpart, Kaos, Dwayne Johnson (the artist formerly known as The Rock) is endearingly light-footed as the self-infatuated jock at the top of Control’s high school-ish pecking order, and there’s a tasty Bill Murray cameo.

The actors all spar well with one another, yet the movie’s timing is often off. It’s kind of funny at first when the “cone of silence,” one of the many absurd Bond-like gadgets introduced in the show, malfunctions. But the scene goes on too long, and it just peters out rather than building to a climax. Another sequence, which involved jumping from a plane, lasts way too long, and a bit that precedes it, in which Max is mistaken for a terrorist on the plane, was done a lot better in the Harold and Kumar sequel. Probably as a result, the whole thing feels overlong at just under two hours.

Writers Tom J. Astle and Matt Ember, who moved from TV to Failure to Launch before writing Get Smart, salt in plenty of catch phrases and familiar characters for fans of the original. Just hearing “Sorry about that, chief,” “missed by THAT much,” and “would you believe…?” will give a lot of baby boomers a lot of pleasure, as will cameo appearances by Hymie the Robot (played here by Patrick Warburton) and Bernie Koppell, the original Siegfried.

There are a few funny bits anyone can enjoy, even kids who’ve never heard of Max, let alone Hymie. But a lot of the jokes just don't work. The flabby scenes shot in an ineffectural, embattled Homeland Security department only made me nostalgic for that great “No fighting in the war room, gentlemen!” scene in Dr. Strangelove.

There are way too many gunfights, fist fights, explosions, adrenaline-pumping music, and chase scenes. And what is the deal with comedies that that depict our president as a sweet, harmless party boy, a pawn of the powerful v-p without a shred of responsibility for what’s done in his name?

If would be annoying enough if one movie let the president off the hook so easily, but I can think of three: Harold and Kumar Go to Guantanamo Bay, American Dreamz, and now Get Smart. Ah, yes, the old trying-to-pass-off-flattery-as-satire trick.

Pretty lame.

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