Friday, June 20, 2008

Get Smart

By David Luhrssen
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Would you believe they finally got around to making “Get Smart” into a movie? Would you believe they tried it once before?

Well, scarcely anyone remembers The Nude Bomb (1980), starring Don Adams as Maxwell Smart, the bumbling spy struggling to make the world safe for democracy. Adams played Smart in the 1960s series but no one was interested in seeing a remake of the spy spoof only 10 years after the show was cancelled. Its creator, Mel Brooks, recently said that skipping a generation may help. He should know something about timing. A musical based on The Producers might not have flown in the ‘80s, either.

The new big screen Get Smart turns out to be that rarity in contemporary Hollywood, a funny comedy. Sure, it hits an occasional sour note. Mostly, Get Smart remembers why the program was funny in the past and figures out how to connect the comical scenario with the present. In 1965 when the series debuted, the public was ready to laugh a little at Cold War spy games and intrigue. In 2008, the public likewise may be at the point of finding humor in the shadowy war on terrorism, especially if the anxiety is transposed into a fun house of distorting mirrors. The stakes in the new Get Smart are high. KAOS is stealing nuclear material from Russia to sell on the world market. To show they mean business, they might even try to blow up America’s amiably bungling President.

The casting for Get Smart is essential; Steve Carell ably fills the shoes of Don Adams (with or without a telephone in the heel). Drawing a little from the character he plays in a contemporary TV show, “Office,” Carell nails Maxwell Smart’s utterly uncool lack of self-awareness, coupled with an unflappable determination to get the job done, a humorless stickler’s adherence to the rules and a dweebish devotion to detail. People like Smart live in the real world and they make tedious dinner companions.

Carell is paired with Anne Hathaway as sexy Agent 99. She rolls her beautiful dark, ocean-wide eyes at the thought of enduring Smart on their mission to thwart KAOS, but finds that the angels are with him when the going gets tough. And besides, his techno-dweeb proclivities come in handy. She may be able to penetrate the lair of the evildoers with the aid of exploding dental floss, but Smart impresses here with his nifty Swiss army knife—the model that shoots tiny harpoons and turns into a flamethrower.

Dwayne Johnson (a.k.a. “The Rock”) competently plays the macho Agent 23, but in the supporting cast, the veteran actors are the ones that shine. Terence Stamp brings a cool British disdain to KAOS’ dastardly Siegfried and Alan Arkin is wonderful as the Ivy League Chief of Control. In a war room scene derived from Dr. Strangelove, the Chief finally has enough of the grumpy, narrow gauge perspective of the Vice President, who sets the national agenda on behalf of his clueless boss. The meeting at the National Security Council finally comes to blows.

“I’ve been waiting to do this since Nixon!” the Chief shouts as he prepares to leap across the table for the Vice President’s throat.

“I’ve got a new pacemaker. I can take it!” the VP hurls back.

Get Smart is mostly manic fun, especially for an audience that grew up with the show but also for younger generations ready to embrace a deliberately silly spoof of action flicks, spy thrillers and the misadventures of a government at war with the world and itself.

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