June 19, 2008

Get Smart (06/19/08)

Lettergrade: C+

The original Get Smart! TV show, as conceived by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry, was not a send-up of any specific movie or character, but of the seemingly endless stream of spy shows that populated network television in the 60s. WFLD in Chicago reran it twice a day when I was a kid, and mysteriously it was one of the few shows that my father, who tended to think that most television was bullshit, would actually sit down and watch.

In it, Don Adams played agent Maxwell Smart of C.O.N.T.R.O.L., a top secret governmental agency charged with the task of countering the cold-war efforts of Russia's K.A.O.S.. The trick, of course, was that he was also a complete idiot who fell ass-backward into success each week. This new Get Smart movie, starring Steve Carell in the Adams role, places Smart in a "James Bond light" style spy-flick of the 90s and today. In doing so, it makes for an enjoyable action-comedy that stays in keeping with the spirt of the show while not busting its cinematic nuts to recreate it.

A perusal of RottenTomatoes.com will reveal that the movie has taken some critical heat for approaching the material like this, but I personally feel it was the right way to go. Adaptations of TV programs can fall into one of two major traps: They can adhere to the show closely and risk being a hollow, overly-reverential echo of its source material (as seen in those fucking horrifying Flintstones movies and in shit like Starksy And Hutch and The Dukes of Hazzard), or they can get so far away from the original idea that you have to wonder how the original title still applies (like in the bizarrely conceptual Bewitched remake). Oddly, Get Smart follows in the tradition of really good adaptations like The Untouchables and The Fugitive in that the filmmakers simply kept elements from the series that they liked, but primarily focused on functioning as a movie first and as a TV adaptation second. The loving nods to the show reawakened some fond (if fuzzy) memories for me, but at the same time I appreciated that the movie doesn't depend purely on nostalgia in order to work.

Get Smart also revises Max's origin story a bit. In the movie, he's a skilled analyst who aspires to be a field agent, but is not promoted until a security breach reveals the identities of C.O.N.T.R.O.L.'s operatives to the international community. He's paired with the seasoned Agent 99 (the ever-fetching Anne Hathaway) and sent to Russia to track down some loose nukes. It's interesting that Carell's Maxwell Smart is actually a very intelligent guy who stumbles through things due to inexperience, over-zealousness, and bad luck more than incompetence. As wonderful as Don Adams' Smart could be at times, the show never suggested that he was learning much from his constant fuck-ups. While that made for some damn fine television, I'm skeptical that it would play well when expanded to a feature's length and especially with someone other than Adams in the role.

The plot isn't terribly sophisticated as far as spy movies go, but it is plausible enough to hold water: A key thing that a lot of parody movies seem to miss. My theory is that even if it's supposed to be a "stupid" movie, everything still needs to revolve around a worthwhile plot. The one weird note that the movie strikes centers around Hathaway's character getting emotional about some recent plastic surgery she's had. That, combined with some lousy, melodramatic musical score by Trevor Rabin, make for the film's less successful moments.

The flick was directed by Peter Segal, who's film career began with The Naked Gun 33 1/3 in 1994. The Naked Gun series was often accused of ripping Get Smart! off back in the day, and as such Segal seems right at home with the material here. Astute viewers will even catch a few minor jokes he's recycled from flicks he made in the interim, particularly from the guiltily pleasureful Tommy Boy, a film which contains what is arguably David Spade's finest screen performance, and from another shame-based favorite: My Fellow Americans, featuring wonderful performances James Garner and Jack Lemmon as ex-Presidents on the run from the law.

Segal's got a great sense of how to showcase the comedic talents of his leads, and Get Smart is a stylish entry on his resume that is confident, amusing, and has a couple nifty action scenes. There have been funnier spy-comedies than this one, but there are certainly worse ways to spend a couple hours.

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