I thought the title would be ironic

June 30, 2008

It was too hot out to mow the lawn on Sunday, and we had free passes, so we went to see a matinee of Get Smart. While the specific alternative was dehydration and heat stroke, there are many other worse ways to spend an afternoon that stop well short of possible hospitalization. I don’t have any personal nostalgia for the original television series. (I always found Don Adams just plain annoying instead of amusingly so, though I realize that probably puts me in the minority.) My partner does remember the show fondly, and he liked the movie too.

I always find it best to wait to see a movie until a couple of weeks after it debuts, especially in the summer. Crowded movie houses increase the possibility of annoying audience behavior, and my tolerance for that has decreased sharply as ticket prices have increased. (Also, I’m a grumpy old man who just wants those damned kids to get off his lawn.) So everyone else was going to Wal-E or Wanted, leaving a small, well-behaved group of audience members to see if there was any point in turning another old television show into a summer movie.

It turns out that it’s a fairly forgiving vehicle when it comes to updating. Steve Carell’s Maxwell Smart is… well… really smart. He’s a meticulous information analyst who finally gets his chance at field work after his intelligence agency, CONTROL, is infiltrated by its opposite number, KAOS. He’s partnered with veteran Agent 99, played by Anne Hathaway. They travel to Russia to find out what KAOS is up to, smoothing out their experience-versus-intuition dynamic along the way.

To indicate how many movies I actually watch, this is the first time I’ve seen Carell in a leading role, and I liked him a lot. He’s got a vulnerability that just about every other comedian-movie star lacks, and it goes beyond neurotic insecurity. I’ve always liked Hathaway, and she’s not bad here, but she doesn’t seem quite able to find many nuances in Agent 99’s cool confidence. I liked her moments of exasperation and bemusement, but I don’t think this role uses her talents and charisma to best advantage. Carell and Hathaway never really hit on credible romantic chemistry, and I wish the filmmakers hadn’t tried to make them, because their co-worker dynamic is plenty persuasive.

The movie is much better when it isn’t paying too much attention to its plot. There’s a wonderful early scene when a group of CONTROL agents are sitting in an emergency conference. The dialogue overlaps in a chatty, office-politics kind of way, and it reassures the viewer that the movie isn’t going to be a collection of underlined jokes and explosions. That the movie ends up in that mode is mitigated by its earlier looseness.

There aren’t all that many sequences that feel belabored, though one has a long string of self-inflicted puncture wounds that I could have done without. And while this is kind of a weird thing to place into the pro column, I was strangely pleased to see that Smart and Agent 99 actually kill people in a rather off-handed way. That kind of thing would normally color a comedy for me, but it works here. It’s also a lot of fun to watch creepy-hunky Dwayne Johnson try and play along with puppyish enthusiasm, but I sort of have a crush on him.

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We actually left the house five minutes before the movie was supposed to start, and we still got in our seats, popcorn secured, before the last of the commercials had ended and the previews started. I almost fell asleep during the trailer for The Dark Knight, so I can’t imagine what I’d think of the actual movie.

*

What’s with the poster for Mamma Mia? Nobody’s going to see it because of the generic ingénue who’s listed seventh in the credits (though I’m sure she’s lovely), just like nobody went to see The Devil Wears Prada because of Hathaway (charming though she was). They’re going to see Meryl Streep, Pierce Brosnan, and Colin Firth butcher ABBA songs on a beautiful island in Greece. Wise up, Universal.