Friday, July 11, 2008

Nailed it...by that much


Five minutes into Get Smart, I kinda hated it. By the time the end credits rolled, I had a good time. The film’s ability to navigate its way from incompetent disaster to mildly enjoyable summer fun owes a lot to its cast, which shines through even the most tired gag.

Steve Carell stars as Maxwell Smart, an analyst for CONTROL, a secret spy agency arm of the U.S. government. After CONTROL’s headquarters is infiltrated by an unknown entity and all of its active agents have been exposed, Max gets to live out his greatest desire—becoming an agent. As Agent 86, Max is joined by a new partner, Agent 99 (Anne Hathaway), who has undergone massive reconstructive surgery in an attempt to mask her identity. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson plays Agent 23, CONTROL’s former go-to man of action, and Alan Arkin plays the Chief. That is about all the set-up one needs going into the film; the story unfolds in an array of spy sequences, witty dialogue exchanges, and out-of-nowhere slapstick, elements that are occasionally punctuated by an action sequence. It is not a particularly original formula, but what makes it work is the unmistakable goodwill of the film’s humor, which ranges from silly to sharp, yet always maintains a certain kindness and cheer. The ever-lovable Carell is a natural fit for material like this, and his effortless goofball charm makes the material all the better.

The opening section of the film is its rockiest. It doesn’t seem like the filmmakers really know how to properly introduce the film’s many tertiary players, nor are they sure what kind of comedy they are working in. As a result, we get some stilted character intros and positively inane slapstick banter. But as the film settles in and gives the main characters some room to breathe, Get Smart moves away from being a one-joke time-suck and becomes a fun, good-humored ride. Carell and Hathaway develop much more chemistry than would seem humanly possible, The Rock gets to effectively play on his tough guy persona, and Arkin is positively sublime as the Chief of CONTROL. Also, the filmmakers did themselves proud by casting the veteran Terence Stamp, recently a go-to guy for dry comic villains, as the film’s most visible villain, and Borat alum Ken Davitian as his henchman.

The film is based, of course, on the popular 1960s TV series. As television adaptations go, it is nowhere near perfect, but considering that most TV-to-film translations are abhorrent, Get Smart is one of the better entries. It is a comedy first, but also has a mind to soup up the humor with some ‘Michael Bay Lite’ action sequences. Surprisingly, the film is pretty successful at following the basic story outline and paying homage to the series’ classic moments while also opening the film up to its own blend of dry wit, slapstick, and action. Sharp tonal mixtures are among the most difficult filmmaking high-wires to walk, and to its credit, this movie does it pretty effectively.

Get Smart was directed by Peter Segal, a veteran of a couple of the still-witless but slightly more ambitious Adam Sandler comedies. As a filmmaker, Segal seems confident and assured but lacking in the competence that is required to make a tenuous screenplay like this soar. A more skilled director could have developed much more interesting sequences, both comedically and dramatically—and I’ve seen more accomplished spy agency sequences in a random episode of Alias. But as in his Sandler efforts, Segal is giving his all here—an effort that not only breeds some stylish sequences, but also shrewdly allows the actors to carry the show. That is the smartest directorial move Segal could have made—let these wonderful talents take the material and make it something solid and fun. They do…and in the end, Get Smart is.

7 comments:

Vigilante said...

I continue to be disappointed in the films you select for review. (Sorry!) I'm just not that much into pop culture. (That's not meant to be an elite statement!) Maybe, you should have a READERS SUGGESTION thread, index/linked somewhere on the side bar, where low-class laymen readers like myself could enter some titles from time to time. I think it might liven things up a bit. I mean, if you should want that to happen ...

J McKiernan said...

You know, Vig, like it or not, you DO come off as elitist...and goodness, far be it for me to actually review CURRENT film. The last time you started complaining about the reviews on here, I had to defend myself for a variety of very legitimate reasons, from the fact that I am trying to focus on films currently in theaters, to the fact that the summer season is filled with films that apparently are too "low-class" for readers like YOU. Not my fault for any of that.

Don't tell me you're disappointed in me. Tell me you're disappointed in the films Hollywood makes for their summer tentpole releases. That is the real source of your discontent. I just review what's out there. If you choose to reject what's out there sight unseen, I am sort of helpless.

Aside from all that, once again, the last time you decided to tell me that what I was reviewing wasn't good enough for you, I posted a review by your request--of "Rendition." Then I told you to keep the requests coming. You did not. Instead, you waited around to knock me for my choices again?!?!?!

Gimme a break! This is what film critics do...review current film to recommend whether the public should spend their valuable time and hard-earned money to see them. If you refuse to even consider what I write--be it positive or negative--then that is on you. I am going to continue to review current film whether you like it or not because THAT is what keeps this site current, up-to-date, and lively.

I am aware, though, that I have a very small audience...and in reality, my audience is not a film-obsessed audience...it is a Politico audience. And that's fine. I love all my readers...even the prickly, elitist, curmudgeonly likes of one Vigilante. ;)

It seems you have forgotten that I have always been open to requests. I would love to know, from moment to moment, what is really spiking the interest of my readers. Feel free to leave any and all requests and suggestions...that goes for you and everyone else out there in the blogosphere. I asked for requests before and no one bothered to ante up. So I will start putting up a weekly open space for requests...

...here's hoping this time it won't go ignored.

K McKiernan said...

Hey, Vig, this is what film reviewers do... they review films that are out there so that 1) conversations can take place about cinema, but 2) they are out there in a timely--"current" fashion so people can decide whether to pay their $9.50 or not.

You do have a great suggestion though about readers asking us to review movies they would like to know about from the past.

Do you have one we could start with?

the WIZARD, fkap said...

The Wizard's 6 Word Review:

Get Smarter... Watch Reruns on YouTube

That really sums it up, but I do have two random thoughts....

The little noticed television series on ABC Family, The Middleman is a genuine heir apparent to Don Adams humor and delivery. I hope it finds an audience.

I'm a huge Anne Hathaway fan.

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

J McK, I wasn't trying to be critical. I was just (a) passing through, (b) being real, and (c) trying to be helpful. I don't think I'm elitist in saying what I said. Maybe generational: If I were taking kids to see summer movies, maybe I would feel compelled to watch them. And then write about them. (Maybe grandkids.) OTOH, I don't do theaters anymore.

At anyway, congratulations on the Jukebox! It gives your readers a chance to say something O/T without being spurned!

J McKiernan said...

So where are your suggestions, Vigilante? I keep on waiting...