Comedy offers 'Smart' entertainment

Posted: Thursday, June 26, 2008

"Get Smart"

Warner Bros.

1 hour, 50 minutes

Though this week's wacky comedy is a big-screen adaptation of a 1960s television show, one can't help being reminded of another, far more modern sitcom.

If you're a faithful viewer of NBC's "The Office," you'll recognize not only that Steve Carell's portrayal of secret agent Maxwell Smart is really little more than a slightly more competent Michael Scott, but that Michael is, in a small way, finally getting to realize his dream of playing super spy Michael Skarn. It's odd how art imitates art sometimes.

If you're not an avid "Office" watcher, ignore all that previous blather and realize that "Get Smart" isn't breaking any new ground, but neither does it really need to. It's sweet and funny, if not incredibly clever, and, with a few regrettable exceptions, doesn't get mired down in the low-brow gross-out raunch that seems to dominate today's comedy scene.

Carell attacks the role of Agent 86, Maxwell Smart, in much the same fashion as did Steve Martin take up the mantle of Inspector Clouseau in the latest "Pink Panther" incarnations. It's not an imitation by any means, but a new interpretation, with familiar references, of a beloved character.

In 1965, at the height of the Cold War, a wacky show about competing spy agencies CONTROL and KAOS was obviously more relevant than it would be today. To combat that, the writers cleverly place the offices for CONTROL in the bowels of a museum dedicated to a supposedly defunct version of itself. Our current Max walking to work passes familiar "Smart" set pieces such as the shoe-phone and the original Max's car, a 1965 Sunbeam Tiger, before striding through the hallway of slamming metal doors and the inevitable phone-booth elevator.

In this way, the filmmakers get nearly all the really important references out of the way early, freeing themselves up to go in whatever direction they choose. The particulars of the plot aren't particularly important, as the movie basically boils down to a series of set-ups and one-liners, but the gist is that KAOS and CONTROL are still battling it out behind the scenes and newly promoted Agent Max has to team with a reluctant, yet very seasoned Agent 99 to infiltrate the bad guys and keep them from blowing up Los Angeles.

Joining Carell in the fight for justice are Alan Arkin, beautifully deadpan as the Chief, Anne Hathaway as 99, and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson as super-agent 23, a man whose career has been punctuated by one reviewer after another remarking "Hey, that guy's not bad for a wrestler!" That's gotta get old, and Johnson has subsequently dropped "The Rock" from his "brand." We'll see what that does for his career.

Able supporting cast aside, the film stays afloat on Carell's affable charm. The guy's funny, no doubt, but he's also incredibly likeable. He's got a singular talent for turning the joke on himself without ever stooping to mean-spiritedness or cruel mockery. This self-deprecating nature is much the same kind of humor employed by Tom Hanks and Jimmy Stewart before him, though whether Carell has the kind of chops needed to play that kind of a leading man remains to be seen.

One scene in particular sticks out in my mind, and whether Carell had anything to do with writing it is irrelevant because he plays it to the hilt. Max, at a swanky party for Eurotrash villains, asks an exceedingly heavyset girl to dance. This easily could have turned into the same old tired fat girl joke that we've seen a million times, and in the hands of other supposed brilliant comedians like Mike Meyers or Eddie Murphy, would have. Carell, however, manages to make himself look like the silly one while the girl becomes the talented hero, all the while keeping the joke funny. The guy may not have a lot of range, but what he has is working out just fine for him.

While I enjoyed the film for its parts, the whole is lacking in at least one area. Not satisfied with simply having a good, silly yet sweet comedy on their hands, the filmmakers try to insert elements to attract every other demographic they could think of. Throw a few good kick-to-the-crotch jokes and a disgusting vomit scene for the gross-out crowd. Hit 'em with some high-octane car chases and gun fights for the action crowd, and let's not forget the ladies. Obviously that demographic is going to want to see some sincere, dramatic romance.

All these elements, even the action, which was, at times well done and at others seemed reminiscent of an episode of "Walker, Texas Ranger," do little more than stall the production and waste time that could have been better used for jokes.

I don't remember it all that well, but it seems "Get Smart," the TV show, never tried to be anything but what it was. I know the makers of this big-screen version are hoping for a franchise, but they'd do well to remember not to take themselves too seriously. This is, after all, about a man who talks into his shoe. Grade: B

"Get Smart" is rated PG-13 for some rude humor, action, and language

Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.

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