Monday, June 23, 2008

Get Smart

“Get Smart” is a movie constantly at odds with itself. It wants to be both a big action movie and a comedy, but neither part is particularly satisfying.

The main problem is the portrayal of Maxwell Smart, aka Agent 86 (Steve Carell). An analyst at CONTROL, a CIA rival, he’s promoted to field agent and sent out on a mission, partnered with Agent 99 (Anne Hathaway).

In some scenes he’s a total incompetent, with Smart played for laughs, while in the next he’s out Bonding Bond.

I can understand the makers of the film wanting to make the character their own, different from Don Adams’ masterful portrayal from the vintage TV show. However the film’s tone constantly fluctuates from scene to scene, which makes for frustrating viewing.

The comedy portions are wildly uneven. There’s a hilarious sequence set in an airplane lavatory where Smart tries to escape his bound hands by shooting the ropes with a dart gun, impaling himself in the process. Funny stuff and very inventive.

But for every scene like that, there’s a dud of a scene that sits like a lead weight. Missed opportunities abound such as Smart trying to avoid laser beam sensors. For all his talent, Carell is not enough of a physical comedian to pull it off. How much funnier it would have been to have him contort his body in all sorts of spectacularly silly ways to prevent his body from touching the sensors.

The same holds true during a dance scene with an obese woman. There’s a lot of footage devoted to it, so it’s obviously meant to be a highlight, but the scene just sits there. There was barely a giggle during the fairly well attended audience I saw it with.

Back to that airplane scene. Smart accidentally ejects himself into free fall minus a parachute, and it’s up to Agent 99 to skydive after him to rescue him. A giant goon of an assassin follows them and the three engage in a freefall fight through the atmosphere. Gee, I liked it a lot better when I saw it in “Moonraker” (1979). Even the camera angles are the same. Homage or creative laziness? I opt for the latter.

The film’s climax hinges at a concert attended by the President (James Caan), where a nuclear device planted at concert hall is set to explode at the end of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Let’s see, an international incident ready to occur in a concert hall to the final chords of a large-scale choral work? Wasn’t that the climax of both versions of Hitchcock’s “The Man Who Knew Too Much?”

So in addition to riffing off famous lines from the “Get Smart” TV show, we get ripoffs of older, better movies. (Though to be fair, “Moonraker” is easily the worst 007 movie to date.)

Speaking of music, the film’s score is another snorer from “composer” Trevor Rabin, a man with the dramatic sensibilities of a snow pea. His chase music is so routine and uninspired you wonder why he even bothered.

For years, the tradition in thrillers with a musical setting was to have the film’s composer play an on-screen role as the conductor. So film music fans had an extra bonus seeing Bernard Herrmann, Lalo Schifrin or John Barry on-screen.

Instead for “Get Smart” we have actor Jerry Sherman playing the conductor, and he’s an odd choice. An old man with chicken-like body, he’s funny looking, thereby giving the impression classical music is boring and old. Of course we get the obligatory scene of the President falling asleep at the concert. Never mind that he’s hearing one of the most monumental musical masterworks of all time, we have to condescend to the audience and show someone falling asleep. (I can guarantee there wouldn’t be such a scene if it took place at a jazz or rock concert.)

The cast is good. No improvements there. Terence Stamp plays the villain Siegfried and he’s great. What a marvelous voice he has. God, how I miss actors with distinctive voices in movies. More Terence Stamp next time please.

I’ve always liked Dwayne Johnson (former pro wrestler The Rock) who exudes screen charisma that most actors can only dream of possessing. He’s also terrific and he participates in what for me is the film’s funniest bit, involving a stapler.

The cone of silence bit is well updated from the TV show and that scene provides some genuine laughs as well. But it’s a sad sign in contemporary film comedy that a two hour movie can only generate three or four big laughs. For a comedy spy melodrama, I think I’ll stick with the glorious “Top Secret!” (1984). Now there’s an example of how to stage a riotously funny dance sequence.

Rating for “Get Smart”: Two and a half stars.

1 comment:

patrick said...

Get Smart looks okay over all though Steve Carell seems to be veering more and more toward not so funny slapstick humor