By its very definition, something that’s “generic” is seen as “having no particularly distinctive quality or application”. This doesn’t make the object in question bad, just bland, as (un)exciting as anything else of its kind or type, nothing more or less. When it was announced that the classic Mel Brooks/Buck Henry sitcom from the ‘60s, Get Smart, was getting a post-millennial makeover, fans were skeptical. The hiring of The Office‘s Steve Carrel seemed to smooth things over, and the adding of Alan Arkin and Anne Hathaway were an equally pleasant surprise. Frankly, the filmmakers shouldn’t have bothered. While the casting is keen, the script - and the rest of the film - arrives deader than a double agent during the Cold War.
After years pushing papers behind a desk, Maxwell Smart is finally getting a chance to go out into the field. Seems the intelligence organization CONTROL has had its files compromised, and with the face and name of every other operative known, Max is the only one left. He is paired with fatal femme 99, who has just returned from facial reconstruction surgery, and together they investigate whether or not the terrorist organization KAOS is behind all the trouble. Turns out, not only are they out to destroy CONTROL, but the Eastern European leftover is looking to nuke a few friendly countries along the way.
Steve Carell, Anne Hathaway, Dwayne Johnson, Alan Arkin, Terence Stamp, James Caan
(Warner Brothers; US theatrical: 20 Jun 2008 (General release); UK theatrical: 22 Aug 2008 (General release); 2008)
Back in the early ‘80s, Hollywood actually tried to make a Get Smart movie. It was called The Nude Bomb, and it did just that. Even the hit and miss Mr. Brooks disowned it. Now, 28 years later, Tinsel Town is trying again - and this time around, this pointless, action-oriented update could be subtitled “The New Bomb”. Having failed to age gracefully or cleverly, the long standing rivalry between KAOS and CONTROL has been reduced to a series of riffs that have very little to do with spy spoofing, and everything to do with genetically freakish villains and blowing stuff up. Without its numerous nods to every testosterone fueled spectacle that cinema thinks equals excitement, we’d be left with a series of half-baked gags that don’t recall the original’s brilliance as much as dull its timeless shimmer.
As Maxwell Smart, Steve Carrel is no Don Adams, and frankly, this film never needs him to be. Instead of a bumbling boob who constantly seems to stumble his way into winning, this updated spy is just a dorked out spaz. By making Max an accidental know it all, a former analyst whose tireless research and reports actually yield vital counter espionage information, we miss the original’s wacked out whimsy. Sure, there are slapstick moments when our hero hinders his progress by banging into walls and destroying potential evidence, but there’s always a comeback, a moment when Max is pardoned for being a novice, and then celebrated for being right.
As 99, Hathaway is also hampered with a backstory that does nothing for her character. We are supposed to assume that a simple mistake required this gal’s complete physical changeover, and the moment when she’s outed as almost middle aged rings rather false. Frankly, she’s not even good eye candy, Barbara Feldon fearlessly reflected the pop culture strut of the ‘60s with every move she made. Hathaway appears like a narrative mandate, a underwritten reality existing simply because the old sitcom featured a guy/gal combo as well. Elsewhere, Arkin’s Chief is nothing more than a series of agile old folks gags, while supporting players like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, David Koechner, and Terrance Stamp barely register. And let’s not even mention WWE Wrestler Dalip Singh. He is nothing more than an ethnically diverse Rondo Hatton.
Yet the weakest links in this lightweight loser remain the individuals behind the scenes. Reduced to roles as “consultants”, Brooks and Henry clearly had no involvement here. Even at their weakest, they can dream up better idiocy than this. Instead, the script by Tom Astle and Matt Ember reveals the pairs’ previous stint on the boob tube. Their jokes fall flat because they fail to establish a reason - either individually or situationally - as to why they should work. Even worse, Peter Segal’s hamfisted direction ditches timing (crucial to making a successful comedy) in favor of overdone action scenes and lots of dead air. At any given moment, there are more bullets flying than one-liners…and both tend to miss their mark.
Since the plot is so serious (stealing bombs and nuking LA is not remotely funny in our post-9/11 world) and the pathway there so uninspired, we are left waiting for the laughs. As clues cluster and fall apart, as plot twists turn pointless and perplexing, we wait for the sweet release of humor. As with most of Get Smart, however, we are stuck working for our wit, digging through the endless mugging, the missed line readings, the ridiculous reliance on techno-geek speak (including a cameo by Heroes’ Masi Oka as a CONTROL uber-nerd), and Alan Arkin pratfalling like a Geriatric Lewis. In a current comedy climate where such scant superficiality just won’t cut it, Get Smart is nothing but shallow.
Because it takes no risks, because it refuses to reimagine or deconstruct the original series for anything remotely clever or contemporary, because its cast is given little or nothing to do, Get Smart readily remains generic. It’s a motion picture plebe in a cultural climate that actually embraces such a lack of legitimate talent. Since audiences tend to demand very little of their entertainment, Segal and company can get away with delivering as little as possible. They hope that nostalgia for the past, mixed with the sight of the slightly famous from today, will equal an easy buck. While the dollars won’t be difficult to earn, deserving them remains questionable at best.