Tuesday, June 24, 2008
Element of Surprise
Simply put, GET SMART is the best Alan Arkin movie that I’ve seen on my birthday since THE ROCKETEER. Is any greater praise really needed? If it is, then I’ll say that all things considered, it’s easy to imagine this movie turning out much, much worse. Maybe I was just in a good mood, maybe expectations have been lowered these days, but I wound up having a pretty good time with the thing. It gets better as it goes along and even if I wasn’t consistently in hysterics, I did have a grin on my face a good chunk of the time.
I haven’t paid much attention to episodes of the GET SMART series for a long time, but I have a vague recollection of some episodes featuring Maxwell Smart acting like a moron as usual through much of it, then at the end he’s still able to punch out the bad guys regardless. So he wasn’t a total Clouseau-like idiot. These odd tonal issues that I remember meant that the film version could have been all sorts of things. The Bond spoof has been done many times by now, so instead the resulting film directed by Peter Segal and written by Tom J. Astle and Matt Ember aims to be a straight spy comedy with lots of action mixed in there. It’s a thin line it has to walk and maybe it doesn’t always succeed—this isn’t a movie about plot, after all—but there are definitely enough laughs to give it a passing grade. At the very least, it’s definitely better than THE NUDE BOMB.
Not that there’s a lot of point in going over the plot, but anyway: Steve Carell’s Maxwell Smart is a CONTROL analyst who wants to be a field agent but Arkin’s Chief insists that he’s too valuable where he is. The secret headquarters of the agency is housed within the Smithsonian, a nice touch. When CONTROL security is breached and the identities of all field agents are compromised, Smart is assigned to investigate with new partner Agent 99 (Anne Hathaway), who has recently undergone extensive plastic surgery so she won’t be recognized. Naturally, the hotshot 99 has to put up with Smart's inexperience and clumsiness, as well-meaning as he may be. Dwayne Johnson is hotshot Agent 23, Terence Stamp is Siegfried, BORAT’s Ken Davitian is Siegfried’s second in command and James Caan is the President.
It gets off to a slightly shaky start, particularly in how the attack on CONTROL is handled confusingly, but it picks up soon enough for the simple reason that it actually becomes pretty funny. Not always uproarious, but enough to get by. There’s a stretch in the middle where it actually plays like the basic situations and dialogue could have come from an old episode of the show and it works extremely well at times. Carell doesn’t do a Don Adams impression but you could sense how Adams would have played some of this in his performance. Of course, there’s plenty of action, especially in the climax, but by that point it had built up enough goodwill for me that I was willing to go with it.
The chemistry between Carell and Hathaway is better than expected, particularly considering the lameness of the plastic surgery explanation. By this point it’s no surprise how good a comic actor Carell is but it still has to be mentioned how much he creates a fully-realized character even in this context. Hathaway is enjoyable as well, maybe pulling off the role as well as anyone in her age group could. But most of all in the film I enjoyed how funny Alan Arkin is allowed to be and it was a pleasant surprise that the movie clearly knew enough not to waste his presence. The unexpurgated version of a line he has which has already been featured in all the tv ads was probably the single biggest laugh of the film for me. Terence Stamp doesn’t get that much of an opportunity, though there is something wonderful in how he replies “No,” to Carell in the obligatory “Would you believe…” bit. James Caan really just has an extended cameo as the dimwit President, but I’d like to think that in putting him in a scene with Arkin somebody here got a kick out of reuniting the stars of FREEBIE AND THE BEAN over thirty years later (Now if only we could get a DVD…).
In trying to be a straight action-comedy the film never tries to be too much like the series but there are enough nods here and there that I got the feeling that it regards the show with affection, even if it knew enough not to attempt a slavish recreation. I won’t make too big a thing out of it, but it is an enjoyable summer movie with a handful of big laughs. Truthfully, I don’t even really know why I wrote this. But GET SMART was the right sort of birthday movie for the weekend and it allowed me the treat of once again seeing how funny both Steve Carell and Alan Arkin can be. That's all that needs to be said.