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.