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Get Smart (2008)

Get Smart was a beloved spy satire that aired on television from 1965 to 1970. Don Adams starred as Agent 86 and he bungled his way through scene after scene, oblivious to his shortcomings. The show was created by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry and maintained a genial, goofball appeal as it satirized James Bond style spy movies and tweaked Cold War paranoia. And as is written in stone by Hollywood, anything that was ever once on television must eventually become a big screen theatrical version. Get Smart already produced one unfortunate movie, 1980’s The Nude Bomb (which doesn’t sound too different from the U.S. Air Force’s plan to create a Gay Bomb — true story). I’m pleased to report that the big-budget modern Get Smart retains enough of the show’s flavor even while producing something with little resemblance to the source.

The updated Get Smart exists in a world not too different from our own (the president is still a boob). CONTROL is still in operation but secretly underground. Agent Maxwell Smart (Steve Carell) is an expert analyst who specializes in knowing the enemy and compiling 400-page reports. He’s failed the field agent test several times and desperately wants to get out from behind a desk. The Chief (Alan Arkin) says that he needs more men like Max. He gets his chance when CONTROL is attacked by KAOS. Many of the Agents identities have been compromised. The only agents remaining are the dashing and hulky Agent 23 (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson), the svelte and beautiful Agent 99 (Anne Hathaway), a group of science techs (including Heroes‘ Masi Oka), the Chief, and newly appointed Agent 86, Maxwell Smart. KAOS, perhaps thanks to the end of the Cold War, has become a group of shadowy men making ties to terrorist groups worldwide. Siegfried (Terence Stamp) and his henchmen are aiming to sell nuclear devices to terrorists. Agent 99 and Max must travel across the globe to ensure that KAOS does not fulfill its villainous schemes.

The plot is fairly workmanlike and it doesn’t really establish much in the way of an ongoing threat. As a result, the movie feels like it lives in the moment, going from gag to gag, but it just so happens that a decent number of those gags are funny. Get Smart is mostly a chuckler of a movie, sure to bring smiles and giggles but rarely hard, gut-busting laughter. I never found myself laughing too hard but I did find myself enjoying the time. Get Smart is a very amiable experience that manages to maintain a healthy level of silliness without ever falling victim to stupidity. It’s pleasantly goofy without becoming farce. Sure there is crude slapstick but the film, and Carell in general, manage to give them a slight edge that elevates them beyond your typical juvenile behavior. There may be a pee joke or a quasi-homophobic joke but Carell manages to make it worth your time.

The relationship between Carell and Hathaway provides significantly more interest than the ho-hum plot. The filmmakers find a clever way around the potentially unsettling reality of the age difference between Carell and Hathaway, who is nearly 20 years younger. The two have a spunky chemistry and their combative interaction elicits some of the most amusing laughs. Hathaway, with her doe eyes and dewy features, is just as eager and up to the task as Carell, so watching them spar and tease gives the movie a bit more juice. Kudos to the casting director because the cast is packed with capable comic actors that know when to seize the moment, and Arkin seizes every one of them (it seems that with every new film, my man crush on The Rock only grows greater).

The film is a hybrid of comedy and ramped-up action set pieces, and surprisingly they aren’t that bad. Director Peter Segal, who has directed three Adam Sandler vehicles, stages some fairly exciting action sequences with a decent degree of visual flair but the film overindulges on action. The movie should focus more on its cast of characters instead of loud, brash action sequences. It’s a little weird watching Maxwell Smart expertly shoot people like he went to a John Woo camp. The tones never fully match up, and Get Smart begins to feel like a comedy that thinks it?s a James Bond movie or an action film that thinks its overly absurd. The tonal struggle means that the comedy is handicapped by all the action interrupting and stalling the pace of jokes. There are times when Carell and Hathaway are firing one-liners at one another and then -WHAM!- they have to dodge bullets and kick bad guys. The stunts are impressive but I kept feeling a sense of disappointment when the action would cut short the momentum of the comedy. The spurts of action shortchange the humor. Segal’s direction is also blunt at times, so whenever a character thinks reflectively we have to witness a mash-up of past clips to visualize what the character is reflecting upon, in case our memories of a two-hour movie fail us while it’s still ongoing.

Get Smart is greatly benefited by the considerable comic charms of Carrell. His Agent 86 isn’t so much incompetent as he is bumbling, but best of all the man keeps a gloriously self-deprecating and deadpan sense of humor from beginning to end. He doesn’t lack self-awareness, and is not ignorant of the feminine charms of his partner, and as a result this new version of Maxwell Smart ends up being, well, kind of smart. Carrell shoulders the film and is able to save lackluster gags by his sheer comic ability and immense likeability. The film doesn’t push the envelope in any regard but it also doesn’t condescend or try and flirt with being too clever for its own good. Thanks to Carell, Get Smart manages to be much more entertaining than it has any right to be.

Fans of the Get Smart TV show, such as myself, will find it hard to recognize the source material inside the big screen transformation. The filmmakers have turned a goofy satire of Cold War paranoia into a full-fledged summer popcorn action cartoon. The movie moves at a brisk pace, despite pushing toward the two-hour mark, and its screenplay is packed with enough enjoyably silly and smartly stupid jokes to guarantee a string of smiles. Like Carell’s 2007 entry Dan in Real Life, the movie presents such a jovial, good-natured spirit that becomes mildly infectious. You may roll your eyes a few times but you forgive and forget. Carell proves he is fast becoming one of the most capable and leading comics, and he proves yet again that his force of personality can elevate material that doesn’t meet his same qualities. I just wish that Get Smart had focused more on the yuks and less on gunplay and explosions. I guess, to quote a certain agent, you could say they missed it by that much.

Nate’s Grade: B

The Haunted Mansion (2003)

The best way to describe Disney’’s third movie based on a theme park ride is this: it’s exactly like the ride. Which means it’’s nice to look at but little else is there. Eddie Murphy, in his soul-selling kid friendly phase of his career, is a real estate salesman who can’t pass up the prospect of a mansion. Never mind it’’s haunted. He brings the family along, which includes a drop-dead beautiful wife, Sara (Marsha Thomason), and two annoying kids. There’’s some storyline about Sara being the one to break the curse of the mansion, something about love never dying and a mystic key which leads to a mystic chest … I know, I’’m bored already too. Despite being a mere 98 minutes ‘The Haunted Mansion’ has sluggish pacing and some cheesy special effects. This is the kind of movie someone has a fear only because they need a moment to overcome that fear to save others. Murphy mugs for the camera and occasionally it’s funny, but he has the expression that even he doesn’’t believe he’s funny. Never good for an actor. Terrence Stamp is amusing as the butler. Jennifer Tilly is a highlight at the floating gypsy head in the crystal ball. The direction by Rob Minkoff (Stewart Little 2) is solid, and his opening sequence of the film’’s back-story being played across the credits is the highlight. But what does it say when the highlight of the film is the opening titles? I don’t know who this film is for. It’s a bit too scary for young kids. Tweens won’t want to see a “Disney scary movie” and would rather see some of the PG-13 scares, like The Ring. It certainly isn’t for adults. Who is this movie for Disney? And I may be the only one, especially after recent events in the news, but when all the skeletons came out of their crypts … I thought Michael Jackson was going to come out and they’d all dance.

Nate’’s Grade: C

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