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Brand new Smart
June 26, 2008 - Rick Chatenever
Dumb is the new smart. That was the scary notion that kept bouncing around my brain as I watched this week’s winner at the box office, “Get Smart.”
Smart it’s not. More like disappointing to see the talents of such likable stars — Steve Carell and Anne Hathaway, not to mention Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson or even Alan Arkin —so thoroughly and expensively wasted.
They’re still plenty likable. You just wish they had writers as good as Mel Brooks and Buck Henry — creators of the original ’60s sitcom — to give them better things to do on the big screen.
To say that this action comedy featuring bumbling spy Maxwell Smart suffers from lame writing misses … by that much. Actually, the movie’s problem is more existential in nature:
The new “Get Smart” has no reason for being.
When it was still a little black-and-white sitcom, “Get Smart” wielded a double-edged satiric sword. It spoofed our Cold War anxieties as well as our belief that secret agents in general, James Bond in particular, were the suavest guys alive.
Having spent some time at the recent Maui Film Festival with Pierce Brosnan, I feel especially qualified to comment on James Bond. I now think of Pierce as my very good friend.
He, in turn, now thinks of me as “Who…?”
“Get Smart” is the summer’s second big movie to revisit the Cold War era. The first was “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.”
What Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and others of a certain age can’t get through our crystal skulls is that these times are a footnote in the history books for a reason. They don’t warrant a whole lot more space.
The hopes, fears and ideas of what was funny back then are as remote as the era’s 29-cents-a-gallon gas prices.
In its day, “Get Smart” was, at least, about something. In our day, it’s not. Maxwell Smart’s trademark shoe phone, or even his phone booth, make almost no sense in the cell phone age.
True, Steve Carell comes up with a few side-splitting moments, as when he almost does himself in with the crossbow on his Swiss Army Knife. And Anne Hathaway is as appealing as a sexy spy as she was as an innocent teen princess at the beginning of her career.
Industry analysts are calling the movie smart for making $40 million last weekend. What that figure really represents is a triumph of branding.
Branding is the concept of having a brand name so strong, people want to buy it, whatever it is. When it comes to movies, if you’ve got a recognizable title, you don’t really need a script.
Back when TV shows knew their place — as frivolous fun rather than the bedrock of American culture and our most cherished beliefs — branding was something you did to cows. The advertising version was still in its primitive stage, otherwise known as commercials.
Now the movies themselves are the commercials.
How smart is that?
Happily, some filmmakers are still aiming higher than the bottom line. Thanks to screener DVDs, I have caught up with a few movies I missed during the Maui Film Festival at Wailea and the MACC. Here are three good ones:
“Captain Abu Raed”: Winner of the world cinema audience award, writer-director Amin Matalqa tells the story of a widowed janitor in a Jordanian airport who is mistaken for a pilot by the kids in his neighborhood. With its simple “hero” and young co-stars cast from refugee camps, Matalqa’s beautifully filmed story is both tragic and hopeful, aquainting U.S. audiences with realities elsewhere in the world told in a universal language of heart and imagination.
“Enlighten Up!” In a filmmakers panel, Kate Churchill described the transforming effect of making this yoga documentary. Picking a likable, if skeptical, subject, she took him on an around-the-world odyssey, expecting to illuminate the path to enlightenment. What she came up with instead was an often humorous challenge to her own yoga practice, encountering saints and not-exactly-saints while discovering that the “path” may actually be more of a series of detours.
“The Fall” Winner of the festival’s cinematography prize, this dark fairy tale of a crippled stuntman and a little Persian girl in a Los Angeles hospital in the early 1900s is gorgeous to watch, whimsical and sweet to contemplate. From a place between “The English Patient” and Monty Python, it was sumptuously filmed, literally all over the world. It could use a better third act — but has the makings of an instant cult classic nonetheless.
• Contact Rick Chatenever at email@example.com
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