Monday, November 10, 2008

Get Smart

Director: Peter Segal
Starring: Steve Carell, Anne Hathaway, Dwayne Johnson, Alan Arkin, Terrence Stamp, James Caan, Dalip Singh
Running Time: 110 min.
Rating: PG-13

**1/2 (out of ****)

Get Smart is a rarity among TV to film adaptations in that it actually manages to get a few things right. It’s perfectly cast. It’s well-acted. And it even stays reasonably faithful to the spirit of Don Adams’ 1960’s spy spoof series from which it’s based. I want to recommend it…badly. But I can’t because while it only does one thing wrong, it’s the most important thing. The story is lacking, an effort close to bordering on complete laziness. While nothing about the movie necessarily screams that producers were just trying to make a quick buck, the script feels like it was haphazardly hammered out on a napkin at Starbucks during someone's lunch break.

Because of the actors’ energetic performances I cared about the characters but not what happened to them. Save a couple of scenes, there’s nothing about the story that’s funny or engaging. It’s a somewhat enjoyable romp but at the end of the day there’s just not a whole lot here and its two extremely likable stars have to carry the whole thing. I expected one those stars to easily be able to do that (which he does), but the other really surprised me. When both are on screen together the film is at its absolute best but when they’re not, we’re reminded just how messy everything else is. Comic performances this strong deserve better material and if the forthcoming sequel to this film provides that for them, I’m all for it. All the ingredients were there for this to be great, but because of lazy writing the film toils in mediocrity. But sadly, as far as dreaded TV adaptations go, it could almost be considered a modest success.
Steve Carell is the bumbling Maxwell Smart, a detail obsessed information analyst at the top-secret government intelligence agency, CONTROL, led by The Chief (Oscar winner Alan Arkin). When CONTROL headquarters is ambushed by its rival KAOS and many of their agents are killed or have their identities compromised, Smart finally achieves his career goal of being promoted to field agent. Of course, it’s more by default and necessity than any faith in him being able to excel but Smart is so happy he couldn’t care less.

Now known as “Agent 86” Max is partnered with the sexy “Agent 99" (Anne Hathaway), who (in a really unnecessary plot detail) was forced to undergo radical plastic surgery to alter her appearance. She isn’t the slightest bit pleased in having to show this incompetent rookie the ropes while the agency’s gifted but arrogant “Agent 23” (Dwayne Johnson) is stuck pushing papers at headquarters since he’s instantly recognizable to the enemy. Together, Max and 99 have to bring down KAOS’ evil operative Sigfried (Terrence Stamp) and thwart his plans to nuke everyone.

Criticizing the plot of Get Smart may seem a little silly since this is supposed to be a mindless comedy and the original series wasn’t exactly known for its Emmy-award winning writing. But even by those low standards it feels very much like everything was thrown together on a whim. You’d figure the first order of business would be to give Max a strong villain to play against and by casting Stamp in the role I figured they did that. Unfortunately he’s hardly in the film at all and the few scenes he has don’t generate much heat. Since this is essentially a spy spoof not having a strong, central villain takes away many comic possibilities. Although there is an amusing periphery villain played by Dalip Singh (better known as WWE wrestler The Great Khali). His scenes are funny, but a lot of that probably has to do with just how freakishly goofy and big he looks.

Johnson, as usual, oozes charisma, but isn’t given much to do. It was probably wise from a career standpoint for him to take the role but it can’t help but feel like a step-down after his impressive lead turns in The Game Plan and Southland Tales. While this part fits him like a glove and he plays it well it’s still underwritten and beneath him. The role should have (and easily could have been) beefed up to better exploit his talents.

Stars like Billy Murray and James Caan have pointless cameos with Murray’s being especially unfunny. He actually got paid to show up and do THAT? What a waste. There’s also some shenanigans involving nerdy CONTROL analysts Bruce (Heroes’ Masi Oka) and Lylod (Nate Torrence), characters spun off into a direct-to-DVD release, Get Smart’s Bruce and Lloyd Out of Control. I’m not inclined to check it out after watching their antics here, even if they’re not nearly as annoying as I thought they’d be. Combine all this with an obvious third-act plot twist you can see coming half a film away and you have a rather disappointing effort overall.

With Carell they found the perfect actor to tackle the role made famous by Adams. When he was announced as the lead for this I immediately became interested because I thought it was brilliant casting. The rest of the film may not hold up its end of the bargain but Carell definitely does. What’s so special about his take on the character is how he effectively balances portraying Max as somewhat as a moron, yet resourceful and still very good at his job. It’s an important component that gives the film an undercurrent of intelligence absent in the script and is faithful to Adam’s version, without trying to mimic it. While I have only a passing, casual familiarity with the old series I appreciated the nods to it such the very funny opening sequence with the locking doors and phone booth that takes him to headquarters, the shoe phone and Carell memorably delivering some of Max’s classic lines.

Carell has slowly been flying under the radar to emerge as one of our most talented comic actors. Will Farrell, Jim Carrey and Adam Sandler’s attempts to balance slapstick projects with more meaningful work and have failed either critically, commercially or both. Meanwhile Carell has been the best thing in bad movies (Evan Almighty) and has elevated standard material (Dan in Real Life) to a higher level. He’s kind of like a modern day version of Peter Sellers in that he’s capable of playing any role believably.

If Carell was a sure bet as Smart but I thought the idea of Hathaway trying to fill Barbara Feldon’s shoes as Agent 99 was a terrible idea. To say I never found Hathaway the slightest bit attractive would be the understatement of the year and as an actress I didn't think much of her either. Going into this I was fully prepared to bash her. To me the idea of her playing a sexy super spy was not just a massive stretch but flat-out miscasting. I thought it was a joke, even for this movie. As it turns out, she shut me up.

First of all, Hathaway looks so incredible in this I practically didn’t recognize her. In fact, she looked so good I found it difficult to concentrate on anything else in the film. All red-blooded males owe it to themselves to see this just for her and if you’re worried your girlfriends won’t like that have no fear. When they see her they’ll probably want to bat for the other team anyway. But I hesitate dwelling on her looks because that would imply the role is just eye candy. It isn’t. Not how Hathaway plays it.

Besides being completely believable as an ass-kicking secret agent she’s saddled with the film’s most thankless dialogue when her character has to pour her heart out about her past. Somehow, inexplicably, she manages to make this dumb confessional scene emotionally moving! Don't ask me how but she does. If she’s that good in inconsequential fluff like this it’s scary to think what she could do in something with real substance. Her acting future is very, very bright. Anyone who thinks this is just a throwaway part and Hathaway could have been replaced by any random hottie is WRONG. Just try imagining what kind of film we'd have with Jessica Alba in the role if you don't believe me.

It’s sad that writers Tom J. Astle and Matt Ember actually took the time to come up with a silly plastic surgery sub-plot for Agent 99 to “justify” the age gap between and Carell and Hathaway because it isn’t necessary at all. Carell possesses a youthful exuberance while Hathaway radiates a class and sophistication beyond her years. This might actually be the first believable May-December pairing we’ve seen in a while and age was the last thing on my mind…until the writers decided to point it out.
Strangely though, when the movie tries to take their relationship to the next level it doesn’t feel right. They have incredible chemistry as partners and friends but it never comes across as anything more than platonic, which isn’t due to a lack of effort from the actors. Nearly every scene the two share together is funny and entertaining, especially a memorable ballroom “dance off” in the middle of the film. Whenever the actual plot interferes the fun stops. Maybe it would have been better if they just let the two stars do an hour and a half of improvisation. Actually, I KNOW it would have been. The creative forces were working against them.

This is such a close call. It may be the first film I didn’t like where I’m looking forward to the sequel. I want to see Carell and Hathaway in these roles again (especially Hathaway) because I think with a better script this really has the potential to be a successful franchise and produce a great series of films. I think this was a modest hit only because of its two stars and the critics were kind because they were shocked that a television adaptation came along that actually didn’t suck. While it’s true that Get Smart could have been much smarter, its actors couldn’t have come across any better.


JD said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
JD said...

It is what could have been that is what makes the film a little worthwhile.
It was better than the Love Guru which I saw the same day. Not saying much.
Still, 2 and half stars seems like a good grade for this film.
I do love Dwayne Johnson, but his greatest role may be Southland Tales.
Awesome review!!

November 10, 2008 6:18 AM

thebonebreaker said...

Excellent Review Jeremy!

You are absolutely correct in pointing out that there is great potential here!

The Wrong Box said...

In fact, Get Smart *was* known for its Emmy-winning writing (2 nominations; one win). It also won Emmys for directing and acting, as well as Best Comedy Series.