Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Get Smart - Review

I enjoyed Get Smart. Perhaps Matt, who thought it was terrible, did not have expectations set quite low enough?


It's funny, but not hilarious. For long stretches it's largely straight action, which I actually kind of liked. As a kid, Get Smart was equally enjoyable as a spy adventure, since I didn't realize just how absurd it was, so it was nice to have a halfway credible adventure to give the story weight on the big screen. When the movie is funny, it's mostly thanks to the cast. Steve Carell offers an endearing, likable performance that's always fun to watch, and the supporting cast offers their share of fun moments as well.

The movie includes some nice references for the hardcore fan, but it's probably best enjoyed by someone who vaguely remembers the show as something about a spy who bumbled a lot. The more you remember the nuances of Max's character, the relationship dynamics, and the show's specific tone of humor, the more the movie will feel off.

The thing about the show that most needed updating for a movie was its borscht-belt comic rhythms. It's nostalgic and comforting to hear the set-up-knock-down jokes in the old series, with clockwork beats so precise it almost becomes meta-comedy. But to most contemporary audiences that style would rightly feel unbearably corny and dated, as proven by 1995's Get Smart revival on Fox with Andy Dick.

The Get Smart movie does seek to update this but, doesn't replace it with much of anything, and fails to find a distinctive comic voice. The show settled into a groove where the jokes all felt like they were coming from the same sensibility. The movie grabs scattershot laughs wherever it can, and the styles of comedy sometimes clash.

Compared to the show, which has a higher verbal joke to slapstick joke ratio than you remember, the movie's sense of humor aims low. Sometimes it connects anyway, as when Max repeatedly pauses while urinating in order to eavesdrop on a conversation in the bathroom. The bit sounds terrible, but Carell's facial expressions sell it so brilliantly it's hard not to chuckle.

Even so, enough of the comedy works to make the movie generally enjoyable.

The "origin story" angle is unnecessary, but an understandable choice given the need to create a cinematic character arc. Apparently the promise to show "how Max became Max" is the pitch that got the writers the job. But Max doesn't need an origin story, particularly since this Max is a totally different character anyway, and becomes a different Max in the end. Particularly annoying is the detail that he used to be fat. Thin actors in fat suits and buses sweeping across the screen to suddenly hit someone have become the most abused comedy sight gags of the decade, and this movie has both. Fortunately the fat-suited flashbacks are mercifully short, and the payoff, in which Smart dances with a fat woman, is surprisingly sweet.

Carell's geeky, intelligent yet clumsy and inexperienced Max works well enough, but the changes are still frustrating. Carell is equally adept at playing overconfident buffoons like Don Adams' Max, so either approach would have still felt tailored to him. Still, it's not as different as it might seem. Despite the titular joke, the original Max was still a generally competent spy -- he could hold his own in a fight and, while 99 often helped, Max frequently was able to put the pieces together himself. He was more slow than stupid. He would spend much of the time a couple steps behind but eventually would figure things out in time to solve cases on his own. He was much more competent than Don Adam's other signature role, Inspector Gadget, who truly did stumble into success, or more often, simply took the credit for Penny's and Brain's work.

Get Smart the movie does not quite capture Get Smart, the show. It has the title, the character names, the same spy agencies, the hallway full of doors, the music, and the broad concept of a bumbling spy. It's not so much an adaptation of the show as a movie with a similar idea. As a Get Smart movie, it hits some of the right buttons but is ultimately a bit wanting. As a movie starring Steve Carell as a bumbling spy, taken on its own terms, it's pretty decent crowd-pleaser. Our audience even applauded at the end.

Still, that airplane bathroom scene still rankles me with its unexplained dumbness--why risk shooting your eyes out using a crossbow to cut the tie on your wrists when you have a knife in the same device?



matt said...

I think your final paragraph encapsulates what really bothered me about Get Smart: Max's gratingly inconsistent ineptitude. He's so stupid that he repeatedly shoots himself with a miniature crossbow instead of using a knife, but elsewhere in the movie he's a James Bond caliber superspy.

This is best illustrated in the scene in which he tells the henchmen that he underestimated Max and "the element of surpri-", where Max tries to throw a phone at the henchman only to have the phone's cord prevent the phone from meeting its target. After pausing for laughter, Max kicks a table into the henchman and executes a flawless series of ninja moves that knocks the guy unconscious. Only the first part of this encounter is in the previews. It's like Max is two completely different in a single scene.

Another example that really bothered me was the scene where 99 explains the poison pill and Max asks how he's supposed to get the bad guys to swallow it. In the preview, which ends with Max's question, this is a pretty funny joke, but in the movie Max immediately identifies his comment as a joke within the universe of the film. Max isn't really stupid enough to think the poison pill is for the bad guys (at least not in this particular scene; airplane bathroom Max or phone throwing Max may have been), he's just making a pointless joke for the previews.

I also thought the comedy was lacking in general, which I realize is more of a subjective thing. The only thing that really made me laugh in earnest was the chief's "Holy shit, holy shit, a swordfish almost went through my head" line.

Oh, also, [MAJOR SPOILER], the identity of the mole was painfully obvious throughout pretty much the entire movie. I even think disguised voice of the Chaos agent on the phone was [MAJOR MAJOR SPOILER] Dwayne Johnson.

Anyway, that's my protracted reaction to the movie. Our main purpose in seeing the movie was to get a few hours in an air conditioned theater, and we heard that Indiana Jones was beyond terrible, so we decided to take a chance on Get Smart. My expectations were low but I was still disappointed.

Kenny said...

The phone scene didn't bother me; actually, I thought that scene was a good example of the level of ineptitude that the TV Max would have had. His first move fails comically, but he's a good enough spy and a capable enough fighter that eventually he finds the move that succeeds. On the show, Max was always able to somehow knock guys out by karate chopping them in the neck/shoulder and the phone scene felt in line with that.

The pill joke (which I didn't see in any previews) was weird, and a good example of your point... that was one of the clearest moments where old Max didn't match up well with new Max, and they were trying to have it both ways, and it was awkward.