The big-screen version of the classic 1960’s television show created by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry is more than an update. It shrewdly tweaks the original, making its hero, Maxwell Smart (Steve Carell) smarter and more capable than the bumbling and befuddled but always game and confident spy played by Don Adams and ramping up the action, and the result is a refreshingly entertaining summer popcorn movie.
The television show could get away with a wilder, more slapstick tone. At the time, spy stories like the early James Bond and television’s The Man From U.N.C.L.E were wildly popular and ripe for parody. But fact and fiction have made the audience less easily dazzled by spycraft and the non-stop silliness of the “Naked Gun” and “Scary Movie” series have made the audience too familiar with that category of comedy convention. Movies are longer and special effects are bigger, so there is the time and capacity for some action sequences.
But the movie will also satisfy fans of the show with its most memorable characters and catch phrases. Carell does not copy Adams’ preeningly clueless characterization but brings his own take — still clueless, but more endearingly sincere. His Maxwell Smart is actually very good at what he does. He analyzes data. He’s a desk guy. But he wants to be a field agent and has worked very hard to get there. The Chief (Alan Arkin, exasperated) does not want to see his best researcher turn into his far-from-best field agent. But when the agents list is compromised and he needs someone whose name is not known to anyone, Smart gets his chance.
He is assigned to work with Agent 99 (Anne Hathaway), an experienced agent who has just had an identity reassignment including a new face. And the two of them are sent to track down a rogue weapons dealer (Terence Stamp, with the indispensable attribute of a bad guy: an English accent), his eastern-European henchmen, one of whom could be a body double for the Yeti.
The action scenes are exceptionally well-paced, genuinely exciting and often very funny. Carell makes Smart an appealing character, a bit of a Walter Mitty who is ideally (and literally) suited for a desk job but who dreams of making the kind of contribution that can only be made in the field. Arkin steps easily into Ed Platt’s shoes (yes the shoe phone makes an appearance) as the Chief and Dwayne (The Rock) Johnson brings the right combination of glamor and wit to the role of a top agent. And the casting for the Hymie character is so perfect I will not spoil it by saying any more.
It is about 20 minutes too long, with one too many set-ups, and the last one drags a bit. But fans of the television show will enjoy some riffs and references to its most popular gags and tag lines and those who are new to the characters will find a lot to enjoy.
FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein gave an important speech last week to the Media Institute titled Stuck in the Mud:
Time to Move an Agenda to Protect America’s Children.
[M]any parents are feeling inundated by an array of media that are flooding their children’s minds with inappropriate material. Too many parents feel like they are losing control, and they’re frustrated by a seemingly relentless march of coarse material that is too violent, too sexual, too commercial or too unhealthy for their children. Messages or images their children are not ready to hear pop up in too many places for parents to easily control, from insensitively timed commercials during otherwise family-friendly programming to Internet ads and spam coming over the computer.
There is growing concern about unhealthful messages and images as well. We are all familiar, for instance, with the obesity epidemic in America, its impact on our children, and how much marketers are spending to sell unhealthful products to children. Many studies show the damaging effects of advertising on children’s food choices. Some of your companies have taken important steps, but there is far more to be done.
For parents, it’s like a game of whack-a-mole, with an increasing number of moles jumping up faster and faster. Too many parents suffer from a sense of exhaustion or futility.
He spoke of his own frustration when despite his best efforts to protect him, the Commissioner’s own son accidentally came across a television program that disturbed him because it had “lots of blood.” And he spoke of his own “whack-a-mole”-style frustration over the limits of the Commission’s authority in a multi-media world. Even within those limits, he regretted the lukewarm report issued by the Commission on the impact on children of violence in media, which failed to include adequate information about options for better parental control or adequate exploration of regulatory options. And he regrets that the Commission’s focus on indecency has failed to address other content concerns.
[T]oday, I am calling on Chairman Martin and my fellow commissioners to launch a proceeding as soon as possible to examine comprehensively the existence and availability of advanced blocking technologies and to propose a national plan to inform U.S. households and parents about media literacy and parental controls, as proposed in the Pryor bill. We need to find ways to supplement the ongoing efforts of the broadcasting and cable industry.
He also asks for better and clearer ratings from the TV Parental Guidelines Monitoring Board.
We also need to encourage ratings of all TV content – entertainment programming, promotions and commercials alike. One of the most frequent complaints I hear from parents is about watching sports, or other family-friendly programming, and then a raunchy beer commercial or a violent or sexually suggestive promotion for more mature program comes on. Broadcasting and cable need to better address this problem through responsible standards and practices to ensure that ads don’t appear in programming watched by younger viewers than the promotions were intended for.
He also asks for better alternatives.
In order to offset the flood of inappropriate material, we should encourage more positive children’s programming like the free quality children’s programming offered by public broadcasters that require more resources to produce, and innovative commercial broadcasters that require more carriage by distributors to succeed. The Commission can help by providing broadcasters with a clearer set of guidelines to identify what constitutes “educational” content.
For more information or to provide comments or add your support to these proposals, email the Commissioner here.
Beliefnet has posted my gallery of movies that illustrate important values like integrity, courage, courtesy, learning, and peace.
Movies are our sagas, our myths, our touchstones, and our collective cultural heritage. They are also one way that we teach ourselves and our children about values. Of course, kids get their most important lessons from the behavior of their parents. But movies give us a chance to explain and expand on those lessons through a modern form of parables or Aesop’s Fables. And like parables, stories in movies have the advantage of distance–it can be easier for kids to talk to parents about what’s happening on screen than to talk about what’s going on inside them. Those discussions are a powerful way for families to connect and communicate. I’ve selected 10 terrific movies in which characters show qualities like responsibility, integrity, compassion, and courage. Each is popcorn-worthy entertainment for families to share and a great way to begin conversations about the way that our values affect our choices and their consequences.
Check out the movies on my list and let me know which movies your family thinks illustrates important values.