Get Smart

In something of an upset, underdog Get Smart out-grossed its massively over-publicized competitor for the weekend, The Love Guru. Unfortunately, Get Smart can be taken as justification for why we need to move beyond a two-party system.

As Maxwell Smart, Steve Carell plays Steve Carell. He doesn’t try to do a Don Adams, whose persnickety, secret-agent droll has become iconic; but Steve Carell doesn’t really try much at all. Like Alan Arkin, who plays his boss, he’s allowing himself to be typecast—at least when it comes to these big-budget bores (although Get Smart is, at the very least, better than Evan Almighty). He’s funny here at times, but all the roles are underwritten—they’re all clichés, which probably worked on television because the old show was parodistic. The movie, on the other hand, is less a spy parody than it is a lackluster spy thriller sprinkled with humor (which is a redundancy anyway: How can you make a good super-spy picture without humor?). As Smart’s partner, Anne Hathaway is, as usual, efficient but uninspired—although, to her credit, her role is probably the most shopworn and arbitrary.

The only real stand-out is Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who a few years ago was believed to be Schwarzenegger’s successor. But he’s wittier than “classic era” Ah-nold. Maybe he’s a “postmahdern” Ah-nold: His very persona is a self-conscious parody of brawn, but in a workmanlike, uncondescending way. Light entertainment is his element, but Get Smart is probably too light even for him. The plot about nuclear material in Russia is negligible, as is the stern villain, who Terrence Stamp plays too sternly. Stamp acts with a torpor indicative of contractual obligations. The writers have cheated us by giving Smart’s agency, CONTROL, a generic, direct-to-video nemesis.

Perhaps the studio categorized this movie as a comedy to conceal the lack of creativity in its script. There are some funny lines, but, except for some inter-fight frenching and a rat squirming in Smart’s shirt while he’s navigating a laser security grid, the wealth of visual humor inherent in the genre is either neglected or underdone. There’s little audacity and no novelty—like a Steven Seagal sequel sprinkled with snickers. Even when they were tasteless or groan-producing, the Austin Powers movies at least reveled in the absurdity and wackiness that have been the legacy of the Bond films. There’s nothing tasteless in Get Smart, but nor is there any revelry, hyperbole, or any curlicues either, and the filmmakers seem to think it sporting to dodge their own set-ups. They’re like major-league pitchers throwing to little-league catchers. Agent 99 (Hathaway) recently underwent plastic surgery to alter her identity—99’s apparently older than Hathaway looks. This backstory stews for a few scenes, leaving the audience to eagerly anticipate what her former self might have looked like—maybe she was ugly, or 60, or a man, even? No; just another pretty girl. Bummer. Even the gadgets would underwhelm Q; he’d scold CONTROL’s techies (one’s Asian and the other’s a fatty—shocker!) for lacking imagination. I scold the filmmakers for not affording their characters witty places to oh-so-conveniently use their trinkets. (Smart does use his pocket-knife crossbow fairly often, but when the arrows shot into his cheek or pierced his earlobes, I didn’t laugh—I squirmed.)

Get Smart probably deserves to be the best-grossing comedy of this weekend, but to defeat Mike Myers’ scatological blubber with a movie that plays like Austin Powers-lite is a dubious achievement.


Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Finding the fountain of youth might have served as a better excuse for Indiana Jones’s newest adventure; that’s certainly what the filmmakers were after. Harrison Ford is once again donning his famous hat and whip, and in almost every way Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is nothing more than a tired retread—a shameless guarantor of financial success.

If this movie had shared the inspired freshness or quality that immortalized the first three, perhaps the dollar signs that drove it wouldn’t have been so offensive. But Steven Spielberg and George Lucas only offer us a hodgepodge of what had been successful in the past. First, there’s the casting of Shia LaBoeuf as Indy’s (surprise!) son. LaBoeuf—who had yet to be born when the first two Indiana Jones films were released—is the height of safe, commercial filmmaking. He’s a geekily harmless light comedian, late of the closest modern equivalent to the old-Hollywood assembly-line mentality: the Disney Channel. One has the lowest of expectations when a Michael Bay puts him in a movie version of Transformers, but one might hope that better-respected entertainers like Spielberg and Lucas would try a little harder to find a new talent; they have bank accounts big enough for them to take such risks. Unfortunately, the force of the new-trilogy Star Wars mindset is still with them. Why cancel out LaBoeuf’s wan charm by casting him as the exact opposite of what he is: the rebellious young Marlon Brando of The Wild One? Shia LaBoeuf as an anti-establishment type is as absurd as John McCain as a maverick (currently, maybe not formerly). Of course, his “rebelliousness” is limited to a owning a motorcycle, affected speech, and knife-twirling. His character only looks like Brando’s; it’s a caricature plucked from the ’50s pop mythology of Back to the Future and American Graffiti, a mythology which Lucas initiated in the first place.

The rest of the players are similarly wasted—particularly John Hurt, used only because his British accent makes the epigrams delivered by his whacked-out professor seem more enigmatic. Cate Blanchett plays a Soviet villainess who is the Nazi villainess of The Last Crusade with a different accent. However, Karen Allen reprises her role from Raiders of the Lost Ark, and when she and Harrison Ford—as Indy—fight, there’s a snappy charm that echoes the earlier pictures favorably. Ford actually keeps the movie alive; always self-aware and ironic throughout the series, he doubles his efforts here. He delivers his lines as though smiling from the side of his mouth; and the fact that he implicitly agrees with us that the film is an absurd venture is enough to transcend our condescension. For all of the hype, we know that this film is utterly routine.

All of this is not to say that if one found the first three movies enjoyable, one will not be entertained by this one. It’s incredibly hackneyed, spelled-out entertainment, but Spielberg’s craftsmanship flows even when the audience is bucking against misplaced political commentary, computer-generated monkey helpers (read: Ewoks), and sickening reverence to Sean Connery’s now-dead Jones, Sr., which, I suppose, is meant to correlate with the bonehead revelation that LaBoeuf’s character is Indy’s son. (Rather than pillaging exclusively from his own and Spielberg’s work, Lucas borrows the father-son dynamic from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.)

When the film’s cautious self-importance is toned down and Spielberg and Lucas decide to play—as when Indy stumbles over mannequins in a mock-suburban home at a nuclear test site or a villain is enveloped by ants—the movie becomes entertaining in a way that doesn’t insult one’s memory or intelligence. But the film suffers the same folly as other resurrected movie series like Star Wars and The Godfather (both of which were renewed after a 16-year lapse, which is still three years short of the distance between The Last Crusade and The Crystal Skull): What constituted as originality in the earlier films is reduced to hollow mannerisms. It’s bland and a cheat to clone said mannerisms, but it’s something of a betrayal to do a heavy-duty overhaul. Lucas and Spielberg have put themselves in an insuperable position, and their only non-monetary rationale may have been to spew the same implicit message of the earlier movies, this time blurted out more tritely than ever: Knowledge is treasure. (The non-profit Edutopia, which Lucas magnanimously founded, expresses that ideal in the real world. These guys certainly put their money where their mouths are; but, in this case, their money is much more expressive.)

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is marginal entertainment traded for big bucks, Hollywood’s gameplan for this summer—trying to suck blood out of a corpse.