Sunday, August 17, 2008

Review - Get Smart

Whatever compliments I pay towards Get Smart, it sounds like I'm damning the film with faint praise. I could say it's pretty good for a spin-off from an old TV show, or I could say it's not bad as far as mainstream action/comedies go, and while both of those statements are true, they're unlikely to send hordes of eager moviegoers racing to the box office. Those statements are about the best I can come up with for Get Smart, though. It's fun but forgettable, a slickly made, entertaining concoction which has enough charm to overcome its almost chronic lack of imagination and ambition. A Get Smart film was, I suppose, inevitable. Almost everything in Hollywood feels second-hand these days – it's all remakes, sequels and comic book/TV show adaptations – so it was only a matter of time before Mel Brooks and Buck Henry's 60's spy spoof popped up on the schedule.

I have vague, but fond, memories of the original programme. The central character was Maxwell Smart, or Agent 86, a confident but incompetent spy working for the top-secret government agency CONTROL. In every episode, Smart would get involved in some elaborate plot – normally hatched by crime organisation KAOS – and he would always end up saving the day more by accident than design, often with the help of his smarter female colleague Agent 99. Most of the elements that made that show work are present and correct in this update, except for the fact that Smart (played by Steve Carell) is not agent 86 at the start of the picture. Instead, he's a CONTROL data analyst who desperately yearns for the opportunity to make the grade as an agent, but whose dedication and fastidiousness makes him far more valuable to the organisation in his current role. A tragedy opens the door for Smart, when half of CONTROL's agents are wiped out in separate attacks. As somebody whose identity hasn't been compromised, Maxwell Smart is asked to step up, and to accompany Agent 99 (Anne Hathaway) on a mission to Russia.

If you're wondering at this juncture why Agent 99's identity hasn't been compromised, that's all explained away in an unconvincing backstory involving plastic surgery, although perhaps this is actually a screenwriter's attempt to explain the almost otherworldly beauty of Hathaway. Either way, characterisation is not Get Smart's strongest suit. Take Maxwell himself, for example; in the original TV Show he was a clueless, self-regarding buffoon, whereas here he's more of an everyman and he's often quite, well, smart. At times the film's screenplay can't seem to decide how clever or stupid he's meant to be; he shows himself to be remarkably adept at dealing with a tight situation one minute, and then he's doing something unutterably idiotic the next, with his only consistent trait being extreme clumsiness. Agent 23 (played by Dwayne Johnson) finds himself in the same boat. His entrance is a treat, strutting imperiously through the CONTROL offices, and dazzling a wide-eyed secretary with a wink, before walking straight into a wall. From that little introduction I assumed he's be depicted as a superspy who's nowhere near as suave as he wants to be, but he plays the rest of the film with something of a straight bat, offering no more slapstick chuckles.

Such inconsistencies are hugely disappointing, because the film is brilliantly cast. Steve Carell was the obvious choice to step into the telephone shoes vacated by the late Don Adams; he manages to give his character the kind of consistent voice the screenwriters can't manage. Carell's Smart is more awkward than clueless, bearing a strong resemblance to The Office's Michael Scott, and the actor makes a number of scenes much funnier than they otherwise might have been. I doubt I would have laughed as much at Smart's shambolic attempts to operate a tiny crossbow, his encounter with a rat in a laser-filled room, or his display of surveillance skills at a urinal, had they been performed by someone who doesn't share Carell's gift for deadpan bemusement. Crucially, he shares a lively onscreen chemistry with Hathaway, an actress who has been adding various strings to her bow in recent years with performances in Brokeback Mountain and The Devil Wears Prada, and who makes Agent 99 seem like the best Bond girl Bond never had.

Get Smart has plenty of good jokes and hack director Peter Segal is smart enough to know that his best bet is to just direct traffic and not try anything too flashy. The film whizzes along pleasantly, but it could really do with both a stronger plot and a stronger villain. It does have Terence Stamp as KAOS chief Siegfried, and I felt sure that they were saving him for some kind of veteran punch-up with CONTROL chief Alan Arkin, but it doesn't happen, and instead these two actors are left mostly on the sidelines. The waste of such talent gives us hints at the kind of movie Get Smart could have been had it shown a little more ambition, but it does manage to achieve the modest targets its going for, and I wouldn't be opposed to the sequel this film seems to be edging towards in its final stages. This time they missed it by that much, maybe their aim will be a little steadier in a second adventure.