Get Smart Review
Earlier this year, to celebrate their forthcoming birthday, the publishers Harper Collins launched a survey asking people to nominate a new word for inclusion in the next edition of their eponymous dictionary. A couple of weeks ago the winner was revealed to be the word “meh," reflecting either an alarmingly apathetic zeitgeist in today's Britain or else just the judges' reaction when presented with such uninspiring alternatives as “jargonaut” and “frenemy.” Whichever, the announcement came just as my copy of Get Smart popped through my letterbox which is apt as, should the lexicographers still be searching for the precise wording for their new definition, they could do worse than look to that film for inspiration. “Meh. adj. The feeling or expression of indifference to an object, such as the sensation caused by watching films like Get Smart.” For Peter Segal's film is meh through and through, the expression realised and expressed on celluloid at twenty-four frames per second, its essential mehness explicit in every line of every scene. It will evoke in the viewer neither passionate bursts of enthusiasm nor vitriolic hatred, there will never be websites devoted to its brilliance nor will it evoke the wrath of forumites demanding their money back and screaming about its makers raping their childhood. Instead, it just sits there, bland, inoffensive, mildly entertaining but instantly forgettable. Totally, utterly meh.
Starring Steve Carell, who despite the blip of Evan Almighty still has credit from The Forty Year Old Virgin proving he can carry a major release, the film very loosely adapts Mel Brooks’s Sixties spoof spy series (try saying that after having had a few.) Although fondly remembered, a little of the original goes a long way (while waiting for this DVD to arrive I went back and rewatched a couple of episodes, and that was more than enough) which perhaps explains why the film pays only lip service to its parent. There’s the same dun-der-derrrr-DUN theme, the same opening of CONTROL spy Maxwell Smart (Carell reprising Don Adams’s role) walking through the multiple doors to get to the telephone booth secret entrance, the same sexy sidekick in Agent 99 (Anne Hathaway) and, latterly, the same shoe walkie-talkie, but that’s as far as it goes. The major difference, besides the fact that Carell’s straight man persona is very different from Adams’s vocal mugging, is that the film’s Maxwell Smart is not the incompetent the original was, but rather just unlucky – early on in the film he aces a spy exam and the humour comes much more from his inexperience in the field rather than inability. For the rest, I’m not knowledgeable enough of the series to know how other aspects taken from the show – the boss of KAOS, here played by a zombieish Terence Stamp, for example – differ in this new incarnation, although at least one of the gags from the movie is a direct repeat of one from an early episode (“And how shall I get them to take it?”)
The plot is not especially important. CONTROL, the superspy version of the CIA, is attacked by KAOS, this universe’s SMERSH, wiping out many of their top agents. Their best analyst Smart is given his long-desired field commission and teams up with Agent 99 to track down the evildoers and find out what their game is, which leads the pair first to infiltrate a high-society party in Russia and then to a concert in Los Angeles where the bad guys, including a you-don’t-say? CONTROL double agent, are planning to assassinate the President (James Caan). But it doesn’t matter; Smart and 99 could equally have had to go undercover at a local swimming gala to stop KAOS stealing the world’s supply of towels for all the difference it makes, the plot being there to serve the jokes rather than the other way round. The emphasis is instead on set piece gags, odd-couple banter and the odd bit of real action, such as a sky-diving sequence and a railtrack-set finale. It’s real cookie-cutter stuff most of the time, a Frankenstein’s monster of a film, made up of bits of other, not necessarily superior films – there’s a smattering of old Austin Powers jokes, a scene directly from Moonraker, a climax with a setting not unlike those of the Naked Gun films (not surprisingly, as director Peter Segal helmed the third instalment of that franchise.) There’s a romance between the two leads, comedy sidekicks, a Jaws-like villainous henchman, a semi-twist you can see coming from the opening credits, and so on and so forth - there’s even a non-ironic scene in which our two heroes have to negotiate a room filled with laser beams. Anyone who has seen similar spoofs such as Johnny English will know exactly where the film is heading within the first ten or so minutes.
Which would be fine in a turn-off-your-brain, Friday-night kind of way if it wasn’t for the crucial fact that it isn’t especially funny. There are a handful of mildly amusing moments, but long periods in which the humour is either very forced or so, for want of a better description, automatic that it won’t raise a titter from any but the most easily pleased – the running jokes, for example, are either weak (“You don’t have one?”) or somewhat misjudged (the fat gags.) Much of what entertainment there is to be had comes from the charm of Carell and his co-stars, especially Alan Arkin who without doing very much makes for a pleasingly dry M figure who gets involved in the action along the way. As the extra on this disc makes clear, all involved were encouraged to improvise heavily, and you can tell that most of the many of the funnier jokes came about from that than from the script, the one-liners going some way to cover for the fact that the script itself is not especially well written. There are a handful of scenes which should by all rights have ended up on the cutting room floor, neither moving the plot forward nor having any good jokes – I’m thinking particularly of the scene in which Dwayne Johnson’s super agent ends up stapling a guy’s forehead, and Smart and 99’s conversation on the airplane about her plastic surgery which is overlong and at odds with the tone of much of the rest of the movie. This latter is also a good example of the efforts made to inject a smidgen of real emotion, moments that don't convince as the characters are not rounded enough to persuade the audience to invest in them, nor the world in which they live substantial enough to make one believe that anything exists behind the clapperboard set. Everything is strictly functional, and the attempts to add a spark of real life aren't nearly strong enough to break out of the strictly formulaic, one-dimensional world in which they live.
Having said that, it's never heinously bad. As far as the genre goes, it's no Austin Powers but neither does it come close to being as bad as the aforementioned English or something like Spy Hard. It is, to quote the damningly faint praise of the new President, likeable enough, with Carell making an amusing, engaging lead and Hathaway, if not as good as she has been in other recent films, doing what she needs to capably enough. There's no real reason for the film to exist - in addition to doing nothing new with the genre, it doesn't really work as a homage to the Brooks series simply because its central character is way too different - but it is a perfectly competently made, professional potboiler, not without the odd laugh. Should the viewer be in a suitably indulgent mood it just about passes muster, not brilliant, not terrible, just there, cinematic muzak to pass a couple of very low key hours. Take it or leave it, ultimately you won’t really care one way or the other. Whatever. Meh.
The film is available in no less than three different editions on Region One, discounting Blu Ray. In addition to the one-disc widescreen version reviewed here, there’s also a one-disc fullscreen version (do people still actually buy those?) and a two-disc special edition.
The Main Menu for this edition is one of the most sparse I’ve seen for a relatively major release. A simple plain image of Smart and 99 stand in the foreground, with the options Play Movie, Play Movie With Smart Takes, Scene Selections and Languages, accompanied by the movie’s theme. That’s it, no bells or whistles at all, and if you wait more than a minute or so the thing gets impatient and begins to play the movie.
The AV presentation of the film is fine. Regarding the Video some of the early exterior scenes look suspiciously dark, with skin tones perhaps not entirely accurate, but by the half way stage the colour palate seems to have righted itself and otherwise there are no major flaws. There is an odd bit of grain, and occasionally foreground detail is not as sharp as it could be, but otherwise it's a pleasant viewing experience. The Audio is pretty good, meanwhile, with the music having a rich resonance and the more active scenes making good use of the various channels.
The only Extra on this one-disc version is the aforementioned Play Movie with Smart Titles. This is one of those follow-the-white rabbits extras in which an icon pops up on screen during the film (or, in this case, an animated sequence) inviting you to press your control to see alternative takes and extended versions of scenes through the movie. Frankly it’s a bit of a fuss, and quite wearing to watch all in one go, and while the branching is a nice effort the fact one can’t opt to watch the scenes ( and there are nearly fifty of them) on their own is a pain. As for their content, the vast majority are Carell and others adlibbing and so alternate between being amusing and rather repetitive. There is also a leaflet with a link and code to enable you to download a Digital Copy of the film.
As the lights went down at the UK premiere a lone, somewhat familiar, voice yelled out loudly "Isn't this exciting?" much to the amusement of all present. This is possibly the biggest laugh Carell will have got from a film which is strictly disposable which, on this version, isn't supported by a great disc.