I once heard an expression that “All happy families are the same but all unhappy families are unhappy in their own way.” I’m not sure I agree with that Platonic idealism when it comes to human relationships but I do think there’s something to it when it comes to movies. No critic ever got noticed writing reviews of great films because you tend to praise the same things over and over. With ever bad flick, however, there’s seemingly an infinite variety of failures to dissect and rage. This edition of KIMT’s Weekend Throwdown is examining two motion pictures that suck but which do so in distinctly different ways. It’s “Get Smart” (2008) vs. “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” (2015) in a contest to see which is more annoying, complete incompetence or self-absorbed obliviousness.
Both are big screen adaptations of 1960s spy TV shows and both are essentially structured like prequels to those shows, though only one of them understands what that really means. One is a straight forward comedy whose minimal success demonstrates how low people’s standards are for the genre and how big of a movie star Steve Carell was for about five Hollywood minutes. The other is a compulsively, desperately stylized adventure is too much in love with itself for anyone else to care about it at all. One starts out wrong and never gets right, while the other has most of the pieces to make a decent film but can’t be bothered to even try and assemble them correctly.
“Get Smart,” the TV show, was an iconic satire that brought the humor of Mel Brooks to the world of James Bond. “Get Smart,” the movie, is a naked cash grab where an old intellectual property is dusted off and put into the hands of people who would struggle to make a good peanut butter and jelly sandwich. The film starts with the inexplicable premise that the super secret intelligence agency of the TV show, CONTROL, actually existed in the 1960s and is now thought to be disbanded but remains in operation. Maxwell Smart (Steve Carell) is an analyst for CONTROL who yearns to be a field agent and gets his chance when all but one other CONTROL operative has their cover blown, so it is left to Max and Agent 99 (Anne Hathaway) to defeat the nuclear scheme of the evil organization known as KAOS.
This is one terrible movie whose only redeeming quality is that it is thoroughly inoffensive, outside of one gay sex joke that you could get away with in 2008 but would be condemned in 2017 for not being “woke.” So, I supposed “Get Smart” has one other redeeming quality in that it demonstrates how fast cultural standards can change. Beyond that? Ugh.
It’s an alleged comedy that has maybe two or three genuine laughs in the whole thing. The screenplay is a disaster which not only misses the entire point of the TV show’s humor but can’t even keep track of its own plot. The casting is another fiasco, with the then-46-year-old Carell far too old for the role he’s been given and the then-26-year-old Anne Hathaway far too young to play his love interest. The fact that the two of them have about as much sexual chemistry as an old lamp and a block of stinky cheese doesn’t help but while the film acknowledges Hathaway’s inappropriate youth, it is clueless about Carell’s off putting middle age. An earnest intelligence analyst who finally gets his opportunity to be a real secret agent can’t be a guy in his 40s unless the whole point is that he’s so awful that it should never happen in the first place. But outside of one scene where Max’s bumbling is so exaggerated that he appears to be brain damaged, this movie casts Max as extremely capable but very inexperienced. It simply doesn’t make sense.
Let me give you another example of how this film fails Storytelling 101. Dwayne Johnson plays Agent 23, the ultra smooth and successful spy that Max has always wanted to be like. To start with, he isn’t on screen for 30 seconds before he accidentally walks into a wall. It’s a cheap and pointless throwaway gag that completely undermines the character. Max sees Agent 23 as perfect and he needs to initially appear perfect to the audience for them to take Max’s hero worship seriously, so when Agent 23…SPOILER ALERT…turns out to be a double agent, it has some emotionally impact. Even comedies need a little drama. And the fact that Agent 23 is essentially Max’s buddy who defends him from bullying at work is even worse. Screenwriters Tom J. Astle and Matt Ember apparently thought that would make Agent 23’s eventual betrayal a surprise. It doesn’t. It just makes his eventual betrayal meaningless. If Agent 23 had bullied Max, there might have been some satisfaction in seeing him revealed as a traitor and defeated. Instead, it is merely an arbitrary plot twist.
Practically nothing about “Get Smart” works, to the point where it’s hard to understand how anyone ever thought making the film was a good idea. That’s not the case of “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” It’s basic plot of an American and a Russian spy being ordered to work together to stop the, yet again, nuclear scheme of an international criminal organization makes sense and is structured well enough. Its director, Guy Ritchie, has a track record of making colorful crime flicks and giving an action-adventure spin to Sherlock Holmes. And if you have film playing on TV or your phone/tablet, only occasionally paying attention while you’re doing something else, it can look and sound like a decent motion picture. But if you pay it any attention…oy vey.
To start with, Henry Cavill as American agent Napoleon Solo gives one of the worst performances you’ll ever see. It’s like Cavill made a bet with someone to see how long he could read every line of dialog with the exact same tone and inflection before the director told him to cut it out, but Ritchie never noticed. I can’t imagine anyone getting halfway through this movie without rooting for someone, ANYONE, to punch Cavill in the face.
It’s also aggravating that it’s not enough for Solo and his Russian counterpart Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) to be secret agents. No, Solo also has to be an international criminal recruited by the CIA after he was arrested and Illya has to possess a psychotic rage from the abuse his family received from Soviet Communists. Neither of those backstories are inherently dumb but the problem is that they only exist to kill time. Those are the backstories of characters itching to break free and defy their superiors, turning renegade and pursuing their own agendas. None of which happens or is even suggested in the film. It’s all just a pointless indulgence.
Which sums up “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” Pointless and indulgent. This is the sort of movie so convinced of its own cleverness that it turns out quite dull, so sure of its own sense of style that the result is generically blah, so determined to be hip that it ends up very square. There’s a scene where Illya is being shot at on a boat and Ritchie cuts away to Solo eating a sandwich in a truck, watching Illya get blown out of the water, and it is so painfully obvious that Ritchie expects the audience to be impressed at him not doing the expected thing. The problem is…
A. Anyone over 25 who likes movies has already seen that shtick multiple times before.
B. It’s not designed to make the viewer think or feel anything about Solo, Illya, or the movie. It’s intended to make us think Guy Ritchie is really cool, but trying to make people think you are cool is the most uncool thing of all. It’s like L.A. Laker Kobe Bryant giving himself the nickname “Black Mamba.” Only an insecure dork would do something like that, no matter how much our craven sports media pretends otherwise.
There are a couple of action sequences that are neatly staged, though Ritchie utterly botches the biggest one of the whole film with a frenzy of split-screening. And the romance between the apparently virginal Illya and the daughter of a rocket scientist makes it look like Ritchie has no clue how to portray a human relationship in a PG-13 environment. All in all, though, it is possible to imagine that at least the contingent of Guy Ritchie fans out there could enjoy this movie. That’s more than can be said about “Get Smart” and is enough to award this Throwdown to “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.”
These films do have one more thing in common. They serve to demonstrate how bad things have gotten on the business side of the motion picture industry. “Get Smart” made $230 million worldwide, which on a budget of $80 million barely qualifies as breaking even in Hollywood accounting. “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” cost $75 million to make and brought in $109 million at the global box office, which qualifies it as a legitimate bomb. Yet sequels to both have been considered, which would mean Hollywood now meets the classic definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over while expecting a different result.
Get Smart (2008)
Written by Tom J. Astle and Matt Ember.
Directed by Peter Segal.
Starring Steve Carell, Anne Hathaway, Dwayne Johnson, Alan Arkin, Terence Stamp, Terry Crews, David Koechner, James Caan, Bill Murray, Patrick Warburton, Masi Oka, Nate Torrence, Ken Davitian, David S. Lee, Dalip Singh, and Lindsay Hollister.
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015)
Written by Guy Ritchie and Lionel Wigram.
Directed by Guy Ritchie.
Starring Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer, Alicia Vikander, Elizabeth Debicki, Luca Calvani, Sylvester Groth, Hugh Grant, Jared Harris, Christian Berkel, Misha Kuznetsov, and Pablo Scola.
At this point, I think Henry Cavill is as befuddled as the rest of us by his continued celebrity.
Who points their feet like that? Does she have some tendon damage?