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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
June 29, 2008

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Get Smart, Piggie and Pigeon, Dam Water

I did not have high expectations for Get Smart. I watched the TV series when it was new, and repeated all the tag lines, but soon I wearied of Maxwell Smart himself. He tried too hard to be funny. Only Barbara Feldon kept me watching, and after a while even her comic talents weren't enough.

Nor does Hollywood have a good track record with remakes of old series anyway. Beverly Hillbillies, for instance, was so empty the actors had nothing to work with. And those parodies of Star Trek were just ... oh, wait, those weren't parodies.

I was in LA. I finished my last meeting of the day and crossed the street from ICM to the Century City food court, ordered a meal from a vaguely oriental restaurant, ate two pieces of fatty chicken, threw out the rest, went and ordered another meal from Fuddruckers, ate the very good burger, and decided I had time to see a movie.

Get Smart started in three minutes. I bought a ticket, went in ... and was enchanted.

Steve Carell plays Maxwell Smart with such utter sincerity that not for one second does the character seem to think he's funny. Things go wrong, not because he's stupid, but because he's unlucky or inexperienced, and he immediately tries to cope, to make it work. When he's falling out of an airplane without a chute, he's terrified and has no plan -- like a real person.

A movie of Get Smart cannot be better than the actor playing him. It also can't be better than the script. Writers Tom Astle and Matt Ember gave Carell great material to work with. The story is not dumb; the jeopardy is more or less real; and the human relationships, above all, are believable.

Terence Stamp makes a great villain. He did in Far from the Madding Crowd back in 1967, in Superman II in 1980, and in Get Smart in 2008. (Just in case anyone's checking, here's another great actor who has never won an Oscar but is far more talented than several winners.)

The comic talents of Masi Oka (Hiro from Heroes) steal many a scene. Dwayne Johnson is excellent as the agent who helps shepherd Maxwell Smart to becoming an agent himself.

To me, Anne Hathaway has never been convincing as the hapless, klutzy waif she has played in several films. Here, where she can be snotty and impatient and superior, while remaining completely likeable, she is in her element. There's chemistry between her and Carell -- comic and romantic.

It's not an accident that Carell's movies tend to be so good. He understands his comic persona. He works to make sure that the films he's in use his talent for creating utterly real characters It's not an accident that he starred in the best movie of last year -- Dan in Real Life. Or that he's in the best romantic comedy so far this year -- Get Smart.

Comedy is the hardest kind of film to make. Romantic comedy is the hardest kind of comedy. Steve Carell steals movies out from under clowns; he brings heart to the films that are his to begin with.

Don't go to Get Smart looking for a Leslie Nielsen comedy. (Though Leslie Nielsen does Don Adams's style of comedy better than Adams did.)

Get Smart delivers something much, much better. I hope this is a franchise. As long as they keep all the key elements in place -- Carell, Hathaway, and these writers.

Now here's the weird part. Because I was writing this review after seeing the movie, I didn't have time to prep for my meeting the next morning with a producer named Alex Gartner. I had no idea what films he had made -- I only knew that, unlike me, he had actually made some.

So I walk into his office and find out that he produced ... Get Smart.

I was still so enthusiastic about the movie from seeing it the night before that I immediately went into rave mode, practically reciting my review to him from memory. "Do you realize that Get Smart is actually a great romantic comedy disguised as a comic spy movie?" Well, actually, yes he did.

"Steve Carell has the same perfect combination of comedy and absolute reality that Cary Grant had!" No, he hadn't thought of that -- and he looked at me at first as if he thought I were insane to say so.

But he didn't think I was insane. He simply wasn't used to hearing a critic say things like that about Get Smart. Most critics apparently wanted the movie to be as silly as the TV series and were disappointed that it had aimed higher.

Duplicating the TV series would have been a complete dead end. Where can you go from there? Into Ace Ventura II Land -- otherwise known as "down the toilet."

I looked closely at the Get Smart poster in Alex Gartner's office. It had been written on in felt pen: "Wow! What a horrible nightmare! I'm so sorry." Signed, Steve Carell.

May they have many more such nightmares.

*

I was in LA, not for movie meetings, but for the conference of the American Library Association (ALA). All the publishers in the known universe bring their best books to show off so that librarians will buy them.

Like I Am Invited to a Party by Mo Willems -- "An Elephant & Piggie Book," says the cover. This is an early reader book -- tiny, easy vocabulary.

Far from being as empty as a Dick and Jane, however, it has a story. Piggie gets his first-ever party invitation, and is scared to go. Elephant, who is experienced with parties, agrees to go with him. But then they talk themselves into a bit of a panic. What if it's a pool party? What if it's a costume party? They dress for all possibilities. A delight, with a surprising ending.

Two more early-reader books by Mo Willems feature a pigeon: Don't Let the Pigeon Stay Up Late and The Pigeon Wants a Puppy. Deeply silly but inspired comedy -- done with simple pictures and big letters. The kind of book that makes you want to have children -- or at least nieces and nephews or grandchildren -- just so you can read it to them.

*

I'll talk about more books from ALA next week.

This week, all I have room for is one last question. When Greensboro's drought began a year ago, we were told we were two years away from getting water from the new Randleman Dam. One year has passed. Are we now, as arithmetic would suggest, one year away from getting that water? Or is our city government continuing to act like a bunch of clowns?

The drought is "over" but not really -- east and south of us it continues, and a slight change in weather patterns would put us right back into it.

Why isn't our city council demanding public updates on the water situation from our city manager every single week? For that matter, since we had plenty of time after the previous drought, why are all the same people who let us begin this latest drought without Randleman water still employed?

OK, that was four questions. Maybe they do math like I do, and when they said we were two years away from getting water from the new reservoir, they really meant eight.


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