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Get Smart

The flavor of the original has been diluted by being processed through Hollywood’s canning factory.

reviewed by Mark Burns

Spoof meets Hollywood action in this flubbed series-to-film remake.

Maxwell Smart (Steve Carell: Horton Hears a Who!) is an analyst for CONTROL, an ultra-secret Cold-War relic spy outfit hidden in the basement of D.C.’s Smithsonian Castle. When old nemesis Siegfried (Terence Stamp: General Zod in Superman II) resurfaces at the helm of KAOS and knocks out CONTROL’s operatives, Smart is promoted to field agent and dispatched with superspy Agent 99 (Anne Hathaway: Becoming Jane Austen) to discover and foil KAOS’s dastardly plans.

The original series was a comic gem. Don Adams, the original Maxwell Smart, created an iconic character who bumbled fluidly through goofy plots steeped in that swinging ’60s era. Episodes exuded chemistry and colorful characters, benefiting from the skewed mind of co-creator Mel Brooks. Some of that carries over. Mel Brooks consulted, at least. But the flavor has been diluted by bland and dissociate humor after being processed through Hollywood’s canning factory.

Director Peter Segal is capable of quality comedy; he does have 50 First Dates to his credit. But Segal et. al. apparently don’t get Get Smart. They deviate from the quirk and contextual slapstick for mild shock gags and fat suit flashbacks. Where Segal should borrow from his Naked Gun experience, he instead borrows from his Nutty Professor days. Eccentricity is dissolved as Segal and company lean on the crutch of tired gags, and many jokes are lamely delivered. Several bits do strike funny, but even these are undercut by the previews. If you’ve seen one, you’ve probably already gleaned most of the best laughs.

Oddly, Get Smart ends up taking itself a bit too seriously. The occasional big-budget action and violence is executed capably, but a little too much so. Such adoption of blockbuster boom gives an incongruously hard edge to the physical comedy.

Action seems a ploy to punch up unremarkable story. Nods to the original series include a few prop relics, but little of the uniquely fun vibe. By lifting Smart out of his original era, they have lost much of the charm and color. And there’s no effort to wheedle out the eccentricities of our own time, aside from somewhat successful lampooning of the war room and present administration. Instead the plot is a lazy and simplistic assemblage of predictable cliché. This undercuts the funny, too, as the fun of surprise is, for the most part, lost.

Steve Carell tries hard to make his own version of Maxwell Smart shine; hints of Don Adams pop up here and there, but Carell generally melds the character into his own awkward stiffness. It’s more successful than Steve Martin’s attempt at tackling Peter Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau, but it still doesn’t click. Overall, the players lack chemistry. And forget wooden; the villainy is mere cardboard.

The challenge in adapting such an iconic series to film must be immense, but the filmmakers don’t really seem keen to try. They’ve merely taken its simplest skeleton and glommed on standard trifles with obvious little Post-It notes of homage. Those who’ve never seen an original episode might find it fun. But anyone who appreciates the original series will likely find it lacking.

Poor adventure comedy • PG-13 • 110 mins.

Ghost Town

Comic subtleties, quiet cleverness and Ricky Gervais fix smiles on our faces.

reviewed by Jonathan Parker

A prickly loner of a dentist finds himself able to talk to the dead and falls for the ex-wife of a ghost in the clever and tender comedy Ghost Town. Not as raucous or laugh-out-loud funny as some current comedies, this film instead wins us with smart writing and an unusual leading man.

Ricky Gervais (BBC’s The Office; HBO’s Extras) plays dentist Bertram Pincus, who has a thriving Upper East Side Manhattan dental practice but not a friend in the world. After a botched operation, Bertram starts to see ghosts. These aren’t your ordinary ghosts; they are ghosts caught between the real world and the eternal afterlife. Something is keeping them here on Earth, and they want Bertram to help them. Number one on the list is formerly slick and successful Frank (Greg Kinnear), who gets Bertram to keep Frank’s former wife Gwen (Tea Leoni) from remarrying. One thing leads to another and Bertram falls for Gwen, while he learns how to help himself and these ghosts.

Gervais strikes a captivating chord as an atypical Hollywood lead. And despite the cleverness of the material, it’s unlikely that this script would be as interesting in the hands of a more traditional and handsome lead. Up to this point, most of Gervais’ movie roles have been supporting. Here, he is the romantic lead, and the movie succeeds because of it.

This is not the first time the movies have tackled such metaphysical subjects (and it won’t be the last). Indeed the ghosts’ predicament is quite similar to those in 1999’s groundbreaking The Sixth Sense. Attention to the small things makes this variation work. The metaphysical connections and jokes are logical in detail, and the way Gervais reacts, and responds to the proceedings around him is both humorous and probable.

In the end, we wonder why we didn’t laugh out loud more at such comedic fare, yet we appreciate the subtleties and quiet cleverness. Ghost Town may not have us rolling down the aisles, but it does fix a smile on our faces.

Good comedy • PG-13 • 102 mins.

Gran Torino

Vintage Eastwood: Thoughtful, involving and fast moving

reviewed by Jonathan Parker

Clint Eastwood stars as a crotchety widower unhappy with the changing world around him until he meets his new Asian-American neighbors in the impressively thoughtful and involving drama Gran Torino. Eastwood’s direction, more than his acting, gives this movie flight, with many of the film’s themes harkening back to other Eastwood pictures. Some will resonate, and some will ruffle feathers.

Eastwood plays Walt Kowalski, a Korean War vet who lives in a working-class neighborhood of Detroit. It’s a neighborhood once Polish but now dominated by Hmong immigrants. Retired, without his wife and with no regard for the families of his two suburban-residing sons, Walt and his conservative ways seem content to sit it out and grumble his life away on the front porch.

That comes to an end when, through events playing out on his front lawn, he is drawn in to help his teenage neighbor fend off gang members. Soon enough, despite Walt’s attempts to go his own way, he is involved with the neighbor family and subsequently much of the neighborhood. As the gang activity persists, Walt is drawn into action.

As a tale unto itself, the film is both original and, thanks to Eastwood’s typically straightforward fast-moving directorial style, engaging. In some ways, a tale of gang members in an ethnically changing neighborhood is the stuff of the 1980s. Yet Detroit hasn’t followed the same urban renewal path as a New York or an L.A. It’s a perfect setting for Eastwood’s topics and themes.

Indeed, what makes this film shine brighter than only-solid fare are the allusions to Eastwood’s past. Much has been made of the fact that Walt is in many ways an aging Dirty Harry. He certainly has Harry’s do-it-yourself vengeful attitude. But we also see strains of other Eastwood pictures, like his western swan song Unforgiven and his interest in Asian cultures in Letters from Iwo Jima.

Undoubtedly, Walt’s vengeful and bigoted sides will not sit well with some filmgoers, and frankly Eastwood the actor sometimes plays out his role to nearly cartoonish extremes (his grumbling in the movie’s funeral opening gives us quick notice). But we’re not supposed to treat Walt like a role model; he has real flaws and problems. The question: Can he overcome those to do the right thing? And is there even a right thing to do? Here’s arguing that Eastwood the director does it right.

Great drama • R • 116 mins.

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