Monday, June 23, 2008

Get Smart

So I saw Get Smart, which is an updated take on the original TV show. I can barely remember the original, but I do know that part of the joke was that Maxwell Smart wasn't actually all that smart. This time around, he's actually quite the geek, obsessed with stats and charts and reports and apparently pretty good at his job, which is being a desk jockey at CONTROL, the supersecret government agency. You've never heard of it, right? See, that's how secret it is. He's so good at his job that he's getting bored and wants to move to where the action is, being an agent. And it looks like he probably deserves it, and, don't know you, he gets it.

That's what Maxwell Smart, Agent 86, gets. What Steve Carrell, the actor, gets is a chance to be funny in a role for which he is just about ideally suited. What Steve Carrell the actor DOES NOT get is a script worthy or his talents, or a director wtih as good a sense of comedy as Carrell has.

I'm going to go with "better than adequate" as my evaluation, and I am going to give the credit for the "better" largely to the cast. Carrell has made an interesting choice, which is to upgrade Maxwell Smart's native intelligence. He's not quite a bumbling idiot, he's more of a bureaucrat who's not quite aware that he's not really tailor made to be an agent. He's stiff, a little clueless, and just not really an undercover kind of guy, but he's not stupid.

But he does wear a suit and tie in the middle of the Russian countryside. Um, hello, aren't spies supposed to be incognito? Isn't blending in a key part of the job description? I think the CIA went business casual a LONG time ago.

Anne Hathaway has also upgraded Agent 99. I don't remember much about Barbara Feldon's take on the role, but my impression is that she was generally more competent than 86, and tended to be the one who got him out of trouble, but she never took advantage of her superior abilities - she never lorded it over Max.

Anne Hathaway's Agent 99 knows damn well that she is much more talented than Max, and takes every opportunity to let him know that she knows it. I found this wonderfully refreshing. This is something that few filmmakers seem to appreciate - competency can be very charming. It also provides multiple - nay, constant - opportunities for repartee and banter as they bicker and fight while trying to stop the dastardly KAOS from achieving - one guess what the bad guys want - world domination.

Terence Stamp, trading in on decades of building an image perfect for the role of evil genius, aces it, but is also woefully underused. The man can instill fear without moving a single facial muscle, and does so, but more pure villainy and wickedness would have sharpened the sense of danger, and, therefore, the sense of fun. We remember Goldfinger's exchange with 007 ("Do you expect me to talk?" "No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die.") because the threat was visible and therefore visceral as the laser sliced its way towards Bond's crotch. As vile as Stamp can make Siegfried, too much of a slapstick feel for the movie as a whole takes him closer to Dr. Evil than Keyser Soze.

The plot can be easily followed, but not easily swallowed. You've heard the term "a hole big enough to drive a truck through?" The space shuttle could fit through some of gaps of logic here, with room to spare. It feels like pieces of several scripts were pieced together, and no one went through the final product and said, "You know, these scenes, which made sense in their respective drafts, when combined, are totally ridiculous." Oh, look, the ultrasecret, incredibly high tech headquarters has been trashed! Catastrophe! Disaster! Whatever shall we do!?!

Why don't we wait two days, and, through the magic of Hollywood, it will be rebuilt, exactly the same as before! Close your eyes, snap your fingers, blow out all the candles, your wish for a brand new HQ will come true, and an exact duplicate of the one that was destroyed just hours ago will appear before your very eyes! Oops. If it weren't actually intentional, that one would qualify as the mother of all continuity errors. As it is, it is laughable. Laughter is good in a comedy, but not for reasons like this. At one point, Smart finds a trap door in the Reflecting Pool in front of the Lincoln Memorial on the Washington Mall. Right. He's going to go into a secret entrance in broad daylight in plain view of one of the most famous tourist attractions on the planet.

I didn't bother trying to suspend disbelief, because that would have been an exercise in futilty. But the cast is so good that I enjoyed myself just watching them. Alan Arkin as The Chief? Perfect. Again, somewhat underused, but a joy to watch. At one point he tackles a high (very high) government official. I would have loved to have seen that up close and personal, and not just because I would love to see any version of the person currently holding that position get smacked around. James Caan has a cameo as the president - he could have used a few better lines. Dwayne Johnson (fka "The Rock") has a great sense of how to use his phenomenal screen presence to good effect. The rest of the cast is solid, but I really wanted to see more women in the minor roles. For example, there are two "analysts" who look like they still wish they could have gone to the prom - one's Asian, one is on the heavy side. Stereotypes through and through. The actors are good, but I think making one of them a nerdy woman with a crush on Max would have been more fun. And whatever happened to the idea of having a henchwoman at the side of the evil genius who can kill with her manicure?

Anne Hathaway is more than adequate as the dominant female presence onscreen, but she is also easily strong enough to have been able to share some screen time with other women. She's growing up fast onscreen. Fortunately, while she always manages to look fantastic - the woman knows how to look really, really good in white leather - there's only one cheesy cleavage shot. This is great. She's much sexier when she's not being a sex symbol. It's so much more fun to watch a beautiful woman and be able to respect her for what she's doing, because you end up having more respect for yourself. It's nice to be able to say that you appreciate her for her mind and mean it.

If only the directing were as good as the acting. Missed opportunities abound, absurdities are too numerous to mention. Homeland Security gets a call from Siegfried announcing that he has nuclear weapons, and is about to use them. He's dismissed out of hand as a crank. Because, of course, we all know that the US government is taking it easy on terrorists these days. The climactic scene involves Beethoven's Ode to Joy in the Walt Disney Concert Hall. Nice touch, and I always love hearing that piece of music, but a concert is filled with great visuals - violinists bowing away, entire sections moving in time with the conductor's baton - none of which are captured. The conductor is an old white guy - stereotype again - but Esa-Pekka Salonen is only 49, and Gustavo Dudamel is in his 20's (and boy would he have been fun to see in this movie). That building just about begs for some interesting aerial cinematography.

As impossibly gorgeous as Anne Hathaway's eyes are, they are even more beautiful in a movie even half as interesting as she is. Which this, unfortunately, is not.

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