Uncomfortably not smart

Get Smart (United States, 2008)
Directed By: Peter Segal
Written By: Tom J. Astle, Matt Ember
Starring: Steve Carrell, Anne Hathaway, Alan Arkin, Dwayne Johnson
Running Time: 110 min.
Rated PG-13 for some rude humor, action violence and language
3.5 out of 5 stars
Does anyone else remember 2000’s The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle? It was a colossal flop, and I think I might have been the only one that went to see it—certainly, I was the only one who enjoyed it—but it’s the best metaphor I can think of for the new Get Smart adaptation. As the latest in a string of (mediocre or worse) Jay Ward adaptations, Rocky and Bullwinkle showed up thoroughly uninvited. It didn’t suck, but nobody cared—it was just sort of…there, and it left theaters as quickly as it came. And nobody noticed. (Meanwhile, the colossal stinkbomb George of the Jungle received a direct-to-video sequel—is there no justice?)

Get Smart, while likely to be a bigger commercial success, feels uncomfortable in many of the same ways. Like Bullwinkle, Get Smart is the latest in a series of mostly-unnecessary adaptations of the work of its creator, Mel Brooks. The public (somewhat inexplicably) went nuts over The Producers: The Musical, but after The Producers: The Musical: The Movie, and a somewhat less-appreciated musical version of Young Frankenstein (with a TV cartoon based on Spaceballs on its way), it’s hard to imagine that people aren’t starting to lose interest. Like all satire, Brooks’ work was funny because it was timely. Now it’s just…sort of…not.
This is particularly true of Get Smart, which suffers from the same problem that plagued Rocky and Bullwinkle: The original sitcom worked because, like Rocky and His Friends/The Bullwinkle Show, it was a satire of Cold War paranoia—an emotion that not only no longer exists, but is impossible to even imagine existing in the modern world. Rocky and Bullwinkle tried to overcome this by aiming its parody at American consumerism instead—with very mixed results. Get Smart has working to its advantage that a new global conflict—the so-called War on Terror—has shown up on the scene since its source’s cancellation. The question is, do people need to laugh at the War on Terror the same way they did the Cold War?
The answer is, of course, no. During the Cold War, there was legitimate reason to fear for one’s life at any given moment. The enemy was global, powerful, and possessed of enough weapons to destroy the world at the touch of a button. Al Qaeda and its ilk are nowhere near this intimidating—essentially kids throwing rocks, by comparison—and while I in no way want to diminish the grief of those who have lost loved ones in terrorist attacks, the fact remains that the vast majority of Americans go through the average day without worrying for a second about terror. If one were to gauge the general pop culture vibes, one would have to conclude that people are, in fact, more afraid of their own government. The United States has, in many ways, become the new Soviet Union—certainly in international eyes, if not in our own estimation.
Again, this is real fear that the new Get Smart movie mainly fails to tap into. There are a handful of scenes the riff on the ineptitude of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, as well as a multi-layered sequence that dissects racial profiling (not coincidentally, these happen to be the most effective scenes in the film), but for the most part, Get Smart is lazy in the same way Rocky and Bullwinkle was: it simply posits that KAOS (the international crime syndicate from the TV series) is still alive and kicking in the heart of Russia, much as Pottsylvania was inexplicably still a formidable world power in Bullwinkle. It works all right as a vehicle to drive the gags, but the determination here of the filmmakers to leave the series floating in a void of irrelevance is off-putting, to say the least.
That being said, Get Smart is still a mostly-likable adaptation that proves not to be a total waste of time. There are a few laughs, it proves to have something of a heart, and it works well enough to justify its own existence (though they shouldn’t be expecting me to come back for the inevitable sequels). Steve Carrell plays Maxwell Smart, Agent 86 of the U.S. spy organization CONTROL, who together with Agent 99 (an appealing Anne Hathaway) has to stop a KAOS plot to distribute nuclear arms to the world’s most dangerous terrorist organizations (see? it’s relevant!). The usual hijinks from the show ensue, with one major exception.
The difference is that Carrell’s Smart is not the bumbling idiot that Don Adams played on the show. He’s actually brilliant and skilled—albeit a little inexperienced. That is, he’s new to the field, because he recently lost 150 lbs. that previously rendered him unusable as an agent (although his detailed reports fueled nearly all of CONTROL’s successes). This is all part of a sensitivity that’s surprising, especially in a comedy with roots in Brooks: Fat people are more than just comic relief, well-muscled thugs have real feelings, and Smart would much rather turn an enemy into a friend than dispatch him. It’s all pretty well summed up in a scene where Smart ballroom dances with a very heavy woman: She runs at him and jumps over his head, he catches her—and he doesn’t drop her. Instead of going for the easy (and, I might add, incredibly tired) joke here, the filmmakers have bestowed some dignity on a character that in any other context would have been degraded for yuks. Is it merely political correctness gone mad? Well, if “political correctness gone mad” is taken to mean “acknowledging the human dignity of those who deserve it, at the expense of stupid jokes that no one really wants to see, anyway”…then color me PC.
The truth is that Get Smart’s main success is in humanizing its characters—all of them have real lives and real motivations—even the “bad guys.” While this may or may not serve to undermine the spy satire (and, of course, the racial humor) of the original program, it makes for a mostly-engaging film that doesn’t insult your intelligence—at least not in the ways you expect it to. If I had had one wish, it would have been for this drama to get played up a bit more at the expense of the numerous dull (and very badly filmed) action sequences, but alas, that’s not what summer blockbusters are about, is it? If Get Smart had incorporated more of Rocky and Bullwinkle’s refusal to pander, it may have been a failure in the same ways, but—like Rocky and Bullwinkle—it would have been a spectacular failure.

About the Author:
A graduate of the University of Nebraska, Luke Harrington currently resides in Tulsa and works in the aerospace industry–but, at any given moment, would probably rather be reviewing movies.  In his spare time, he’s off playing blues piano and pretending to be Assistant Editor for MovieZeal.com.