Saturday, June 28, 2008

Get Smart / *** (PG-13)

Maxwell Smart: Steve Carell
Agent 99: Anne Hathaway
Agent 23: Dwayne Johnson
The Chief: Alan Arkin
Siegfried: Terence Stamp

Warner Bros. Pictures presents a film directed by Peter Segal. Written by Tom J. Astle & Matt Ember. Based on the television series created by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry. Running time: 110 min. Rated PG-13 (for some rude humor, action violence and language).

So often in today’s box office-driven movie market, you’ll see a trailer for a comedy with all the best jokes revealed. More often than not, the jokes in the trailer are the only laughable entries in the entire picture. The trailer for “Get Smart” has a great deal of good jokes in it. But it also gives the impression that it may contain the only good ones with the way it strikes all the cookie-cutter beats of the typical action comedy trailer. Serious introduction of villainous plot to goofy introduction of incompetent hero to introduction of remaining cast members, sight gag here, verbal insult there, explosion, explosion, comedic visual and verbal button, “come see our movie!” But low and behold, “Get Smart” breaks the mold by offering even more jokes throughout the movie, including good ones in scenes that aren’t even in the trailer.

Yes, “Get Smart” is quite smart. It remembers the work of the original show’s creators Mel Brooks and Bucky Henry, whose careers as comedy writing legends are based on the notion that even silly comedy can be smart. The screenplay by Tom J. Astle and Matt Ember (both previously co-wrote “Failure to Launch”) never dumbs itself down for the audience. Even more impressive is that it treats it characters with respect. The bumbling covert agent Maxwell Smart would be an easy character to treat as a fool, but here he is not. He is quite competent as played by Steve Carell (NBC’s “The Office”), if just a little unaware.

The filmmakers give us a genuine villain in Siegfried (Terrance Stamp, WB’s “Smallville”), a weapons dealer for the criminal organization KAOS. And Control operates like a legitimate covert ops branch for the United States government, where Smart is a top analyst. He dreams of being promoted to field agent status, but is told by The Chief that he is too valuable as an analyst.

Control is populated by a variety of spy and office characters. There are Bruce (Masi Oka, NBC’s “Heroes”) and Lloyd (Nate Torrence, NBC’s “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip”), Smart’s analyst buddies who are hurt by his desire to switch teams and work with the physically intimidating agents. David Koeckner (“Semi-Pro”) threatens to steal every scene he’s in as the bully agent Larabee, but the screenplay keeps him in check by limiting his screen time to just the jokes.

The larger roles are treated more seriously by the filmmakers but are still not beyond reproach. Alan Arkin (“Little Miss Sunshine”) retains his unique brand of pitch-perfect dry wit as The Chief. And Dwayne Johnson (“The Game Plan”) plays the nearly perfect Agent 23 but still finds himself the butt of a couple of jokes and the deliverer of a couple of guffaws. Johnson once again shows a natural ability for comedy here that is unexpected from a man of his physically impressive stature.

When the names of all of Control’s top field agents fall into the hands of KAOS, a plot to eliminate them forces Control to recall all active agents and place new agents in the field. This is Smart’s big break into the spy game. His is paired up with an experienced pro, Agent 99. Her identity was not compromised in the security breach because she had just undergone major reconstructive surgery to her face. She now looks like the beautiful Anne Hathaway (“The Devil Wears Prada”) but used to look like the sexy Cameron Diaz.

Carell and Hathaway make a surprisingly good match together on screen. Agent 99 spends most of their first mission saving Max’s life, and Hathaway’s sturdy performance allows you to believe it. Carell is a master of understated delivery and the film would not work without him. Director Peter Segal (“The Longest Yard”) wisely does not play up the goofiness of Smart’s ineptitude but rather allows Carell to keep Smart’s mistakes as a character quirk instead of outright buffoonery. When Agent 99 begins to fall for Smart, Hathaway’s ever-so-slight glimpses into her emotions and Carell’s portrayal of Smart as an intelligent klutz make the idea of their romance more acceptable.

The plot offers nothing exceptional in respect to the spy genre. It involves a threat by KAOS to hold the world at ransom with their stockpile of nuclear weapons. To prove the validity of their threat, Siegfried plans to assassinate the President while he is attending a benefit concert performance in Los Angeles. James Caan (NBC’s “Las Vegas”) has fun with his brief role as the President, poking fun at our current President’s mispronunciation of the word “nuclear.”

But the movie is not really a send up of the spy genre so much as a parody of its characters. To spoof the genre would involve employing stupidity for laughs, while concentrating the comedy just on character allows for silliness in the context of intelligence. “Get Smart” will not ever be considered a classic, but it pays homage to the original television series without trying to copy it or mock it. There are a few signature lines the writers give to Carell to connect his Maxwell Smart with Don Adams in the series, but Carell never imitates Adams. However, the filmmakers do find an interesting way for Carell to replicate Adams’s nasal delivery for his famous line, “Missed it by that much.” “Get Smart” pays tribute for those who remember the original but exists on its own for newcomers. Most of all, it is just good fun.


patrick said...

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

Andrew D. Wells said...

Well, that is really what surprised me about the movie. I expected it to be very slapsticky, and if it were totally devoid of slapstick it would not be true to the original series. But Carell did a good job making Smart a real person, and not just a gag to gag goofball.