I worried a lot about "Get Smart."
Before they started shooting it, Warner Bros. actually tried to remove the credits of creators Mel Brooks and Buck Henry from the film. They sued the pair, claiming the idea came from another place. At the last minute, saner heads prevailed. Brooks and Henry were paid (I hope, handsomely) to be credited with creating characters like Maxwell Smart, Agent 99 and the Chief.
Alas, "Get Smart," which I saw Monday night, is a hodgepodge. The good news is, it’s not awful. It has somehow retained a little of the Brooks/Henry spirit. There is just enough of it, spread around thinly, to make you remember what real satire was like, since "Get Smart" was a take-off on everything from "The Man from UNCLE" to James Bond.
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But it’s also been considerably dumbed down. There is a coarseness to the material that should make director Peter Segal and his two screenwriters a little embarrassed. In order to pitch the new "Get Smart" to idiot 12-year-olds, they let one person denounce another as a "douche" and another as a "d—-wad." It’s very, very sad.
I will stick with the upside, though. Despite Segal’s incredibly uneven tone and pacing, "Get Smart" still trots out some happily familiar elements. They use the theme music from the TV show a lot, which is always a good sign. There is also the old opening, of Max going into the phone booth and emerging in the CONTROL HQ with slamming metal doors. All of that is very well done.
As a sop to us old folks, each of Max’s famous one-liners is used once. They are "Missed it by that much" and "Would you believe …?" Also, Steve Carell does get to say "Sorry about that, Chief" at least once. Also nodded at are the old CONTROL devices: the shoe phone, the cone of silence, etc.
There are also some cameos: Bill Murray, uncredited, appears once as Agent 13, hiding in a tree. In the show, Agent 13 (Dave Ketchum) popped up regularly in odd spots like trash cans and soda machines. It would have been a good gag here, but Segal foregoes it. Too bad. James Caan also appears as a bumbling president of the U.S. who’s under the thumb of his evil V.P.
There are also a couple of references to the old TV show: jovial Bernie Kopell, who played Siegfried, the head of KAOS in the series ( and known, alas, as Doc from "Love Boat") speeds by. It’s just as well. In the movie, Terence Stamp is a much-too-serious Siegfried. Leonard Stern, who produced the TV show, is a pilot. Maybe Barbara Feldon will be asked to play 99’s mother in the sequel.
I guess Segal and Co. didn’t think an actual comedy/satire would work, so they went for something in between. There are lots of explosions and chases — wasted, wasted money, considering that the lighting and sound are deficient in many scenes.
I guess "sly" is not possible in a world of lowered expectations, so broad and dull are the easy replacements. Constant references to Ryan Seacrest are just completely idiotic. And a big long plug for Disney Hall in downtown Los Angeles is simply weird.
That brings me to Carell, whom I adore in most cases, as Maxwell Smart. He can’t be Don Adams, but he tries really hard to find that sweet spot. He’s almost got it, and he looks the part.
Anne Hathaway is much too young to play 99 against Carell, so they explain that she’s had plastic surgery and has been "de-aged" somehow. Whatever. In the series, the dynamic between Max and 99 was that 99 adored Max, who was dim and self-possessed. He barely noticed her devotion. She saved him from himself. They were charming.
In this version, 99 mostly rebuffs Max and considers him her inferior. He’s not sure if she’s right, and is willing to concede his worst points. I guess this is a formula. The contemporary audience may swallow it. But Hathaway, who is fine, doesn’t have the mature sensuality of Barbara Feldon, and the couple feels out of balance.
Mel Brooks assured me on Monday that he has not retired and has not shut down his Brooks Films. I spoke to him from there on Monday by phone.
Mel told me, as did Buck Henry the other day, that he’s seen "Get Smart" and likes it. This, of course, came after his lawyers rebuffed a suit from Warner Bros. in which the studio sought to separate the pair from the rights to their creation. But that’s all water under the bridge.
"There are some very funny physical sequences," he observed. "Alan Arkin is wonderful as the Chief. And they’ve managed to work in the shoe phone and the cone of silence."
Henry, who’s on the mend in Los Angeles from surgery, says he also saw "Get Smart" and he’s OK with it. "I hope they make a sequel!" he joked.
And why not? All signs point to one. At the end of this film, Patrick Warburton (Puddy from "Seinfeld") makes a welcome entrance as Hymie the Robot. (Hymie was played in the series by the splendid Dick Gauthier.)
Mel made sure some of his and Buck’s humor made it into the movie. One character is named "Nudnik Shpilkas." That sort of thing. Most comedies today (with the exception of Woody Allen and now Adam Sandler’s "Zohan") are drained of much ethnic humor.
"When you make something politically correct, it comes out like bland Jell-O," Mel advised me. "When it’s irreverent, it’s like chocolate so good you could die for."
Among Mel’s next projects is an animated series based on his hilarious "Spaceballs" movie. He’s also going to produce a horror film called "Pizza Man" written by Ruby De Luca and Steve Haberman.
And the good, good news is that Mel is not planning on retirement. "I’m going to keep writing and directing and producing … 'til the end of time or my time!" he declared.
And P.S.: Forget all that stuff you might have read about "Young Frankenstein" not doing well on Broadway. Despite all the efforts by some in the nasty, backbiting theater community to kill it, "Frankenstein" lives! If you’re coming to New York, my advice is: Don’t miss it! Tony, shmony!
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