On Saturday, Lizzy and I went to catch a matinee of the “Get Smart” movie. As a fan of the classic series, despite the fact that it was cancelled seventeen years before I was born, I had been anticipating the movie’s release for quite some time. I’d been following the development of the film since way back when Will Ferrell was considered for Max. I had read the early script reviews, which kept my expectations astonishingly low. So, on Saturday, I went in, hoping to be entertained.
Was I entertained? Yes, to an extent. Did it feel like “Get Smart”? At parts, sure, but overall, not really.
WARNING: THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR THE GET SMART MOVIE. ONE OF YOU MIGHT CARE ABOUT THIS, ALTHOUGH I CAN’T IMAGINE WHO.
First off, I’ve been a fan of Steve Carell’s since his “Daily Show” days, and he steps up to the herculean task of filling Don Adams’ shoes as well as anyone could. I was pleasantly surprised by Dwayne Johnson’s performance, even if his character was a bit inconsistent (you can’t claim he’s the greatest field agent in the world and then have him bump into a door for a cheap laugh). Even the tiniest cameos are perfectly cast—Bill Murray is perfect in his twenty seconds as Agent 13, and Patrick Warburton has been my number one choice to play Hymie ever since I first heard a “Get Smart” movie might eventually be made. (Sadly, he doesn’t get the chance to do anything remotely connected with Hymie’s character, but whatcha gonna do.) And Bernie “The Original Siegfried” Kopell has a quite amusing (if not a bit fan-servicing) cameo as an irate driver with a familiar accent.
Additionally, there are several nods to fans of the series throughout the film. The opening credits alone gives us references to classic KAOS villains Mr. Big and The Claw (Not the Craw! The Craw!), as well as the Portable Cone of Silence. It isn’t long before we also see a theater marquee that appears to be playing the classic episode “Ship of Spies”, and over the course of the movie, at least one line is directly taken from a classic episode (the “How do I get them to take it” line with the cyanide pill, and there may have been more I don’t remember). And the classic doorway sequence is handled beautifully, updated and expounded upon slightly, but in a way that’s true to character, and with an awesome, full movie-score version of Irving Szathmary’s iconic theme song. It was nice seeing these homages, but honestly, I felt a bit pandered-to. Were they just including these classic references to shut the fans up and distract us from the script’s lack of staying true to the show?
The fact of the matter is, while there are quite a few chuckles to be found in the movie, the script needed at least one more revision. I’d say the movie “missed it by that much”, but at least 427 movie critics already made that exact joke, so saying it wouldn’t make me nearly as clever as I’d hope.
Let’s start with the character of Max. Carell plays him extremely well, wisely avoiding the direct imitation of Don Adams in favor of getting the essence of the character. (Carell famously avoids watching too much of the original “The Office” because he doesn’t want to just ape Gervais’ performance as David Brent in his own performance as Michael Scott, a decision that I commend him for, although I will say that he’s missing out on watching a very funny series. If the US “Office” ever ends, the first thing I’d recommend to Carell is that he not waste another second and watch the “Training Day” episode of the original series. One of the most brilliantly-crafted half hours in television history. But I digress.)
The problem with Max is how he’s written. Of course, the character of Max has been screwed up before even with Adams in the role—1980’s “The Nude Bomb”, which I haven’t seen, reportedly eliminated Max’s innocent naivete in favor of making him a more direct Bond parody. This movie makes the exact opposite mistake—Max is still the sweet, innocent spy we know and love, but he lacks the confidence of the original 86. Much like Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau, Adams as Maxwell Smart was convinced that he was the greatest spy in the world, and nothing would ever convince him otherwise. In this movie, Max spends the first fifteen minutes whining about how he’ll never become an agent. He has to face his own shortcomings, unlike the original Max, who was so blind to his own faults that he could stumble his way into success. This Max is basically a nicer, slightly smarter version of Michael Scott.
Still, Carell puts forth an excellent performance, and even though you don’t necessarily feel like you’re watching the “real” Maxwell Smart, you buy the character. Some of the catchphrases just sound weird coming from someone who’s not Don Adams (the two “The-old-trick”s seemed particularly forced), but despite that, Carell is easily the best thing about the movie. (Incidentally, for all the problems I have with the writing, I must disagree with several reviewers who claim they made Max too competent. The original Max, despite being klutzy and oblivious, had his shining moments of competency, and would even save 99’s life occasionally.)
On the other hand, lets talk about Siegfried. Siegfried wasn’t really in that many episodes of the original show; he’s remembered today as the main villain primarily because of how funny, how quirky, and, oddly enough, how human he was. Kopell played Siegfried as an affectionate rival to Max, like a less snarky version of Belloq from “Raiders of the Lost Ark”. Terrence Stamp, however, despite opening with a “This-is-KAOS-we-don’t-____-here”, plays Siegfried as a typical one-dimensional movie villain who forgoes any interesting personality in favor of attempting to be “scary” by being cold and mysterious. Unfortunately, it’s not scary, it’s just flat. Shtarker is slightly more interesting, but he’s fairly pointless when they don’t give him the same interaction with Siegfried that he had in the original series.
99 is similarly reduced to an action-movie-cliche. By the end of the movie she becomes closer to the affectionate 99 that Barbara Feldon made so famous, but at the beginning, she’s your typical movie bitch. The original 99 was perfectly tough, able to hold her own in any fight, but she was also caring and supportive. This 99 is the type of character who would be in a movie that the original show would have parodied mercilessly.
But for all the changes made to characters, the absolute worst offender is Larabee, a clear case where they took the name of a character but absolutely nothing of what made the character who he was. Larabee is played by David Koechner, who plays him exactly like he plays Todd Packer on “The Office”, or any other role—as a smug, stupid, chauvinistic asshole. Also, he’s a field agent for some reason. On the show, Adams’ cousin Robert Karvelas played Larabee as even more naïve than Max. He was content, if not competent, in his office job, and he harbored no ill will toward anyone except his wife. He wouldn’t be torturing newbies and messing with techies just for fun.
Of all the characters translated from the show to the screen, the only one who was adapted with 100% accuracy was Agent 13—his loneliness and resentment of his constant covert assignments comes through in Murray’s far-far-FAR-too-short performance. Even though they got the casting right for Hymie, for the brief moment we see him, he is being remote controlled, and as such, we don’t see his desire to be human or his penchant for taking things literally.
But you probably don’t care so much that they changed the characters. You just want to know, is it funny? The answer is, it has a lot of pretty funny moments, but it also falls flat a lot. Quite frequently, director Peter Segal (an alum of Adam Sandler movies, so take from that what you will) and the screenwriters stoop to the lowest-common-denominator cheap gag, something the show avoided. Gross-out shock humor is heavily relied on, and it just feels old and lifeless. When a passing KAOS agent sees Max struggling with Shtarker and gets the wrong idea, it’s nothing we haven’t seen before. Hell, we’ve seen a much more shocking version of the same joke with the same actor…and frankly, I didn’t think it was that funny the first time. What’s more, the government satire that characterized the show is replaced with jokes about Bush’s vacation time and pronunciation of “nuclear” that stopped being funny well before 2004. (Although I did enjoy the bit with the CIA’s answering machine.)
Yes, there are jokes that work, but far too many that seemingly had no effort put into them. It’s not the least funny comedy ever (certainly not as long as Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer are allowed to make movies, but more on that in another blog post), but it could have—and should have—been a lot funnier. One more draft could have done it (although the plot still might have been cookie-cutter and predictable).
I’d recommend renting it, for Carell’s performance if nothing else, but it’s not “Get Smart”. I’d strongly suggest buying or renting the original series, to see a classic spy parody that could be both silly and witty, both ludicrous and clever, both over-the-top and human, but it’s not available on retail DVD yet, only through Time-Life, and the impending retail version will apparently be stripped of its bonus features. (The 1995 spinoff with Andy Dick is available on retail DVD, but I can’t say I’d recommend it.)