The difference between Get Smart and many other spy comedy films such as Johnny English is that the main character Maxwell Smart (Steve Carell) is not incompetent. The film doesn’t have to tortuously explain why an imbecile is placed in charge of saving the world. Instead it chooses to create an unlikely situation that grants CONTROL analyst Smart his dearest wish of becoming a field agent. Smart’s inevitable pratfalls are the result of inexperience rather than inability. This makes it easier to sympathise and identify with him, and makes the film’s humour feel very comfortable — like you’re laughing at a friend.
Ben Stiller plays Larry Daley, a divorced dad with plenty of ideas but little luck in seeing them through. At the urging of his ex-wife, he decides to seek a steady job, and finds himself thrust into the position of night security guard at the New York Museum Of Natural History. The outgoing security guards (Dick Van Dyke, Mickey Rooney, and Bill Cobbs) leave him some strange and dire-sounding advice before they leave for their retirement party, and Larry soon finds out what they meant: after dark, all the exhibits in the museum come to life.
There’s a lot to like here. Animals and dinosaur skeletons rampaging through the museum halls, miniature diorama Roman armies slugging it out with tiny American frontiersmen, and an Easter Island statue that loves chewing gum. Ben Stiller carries the leading role well, treading a fine line between hapless and hero, and the supporting cast are generally excellent. However, there is a lot of flab, too. Ricky Gervais’s pointless turn as the museum director could be cut almost completely, and there are a lot of meandering motivational scenes that just reiterate points already made clearly enough. If it had been twenty minutes shorter, the action/comedy blend would have been unbeatable.
You may have seen this hanging around in the “humour” section of your local bookshop, and at first it is easy to mistake it for one of those throwaway near-funny books that appear en masse about two months before Christmas and are never seen again afterwards. The very idea of the book is funny: that’s the first impression.
If you actually start reading it, though, you quickly realize that it isn’t written as a comedy. There are no zombie fart gags, no step-by-step instructions for building a zombie-powered washing machine. It is a completely serious survival handbook that pivots around the assumption that zombies are real. It weighs up the benefits and drawbacks of a wide variety of weapons. It outlines strategies for escape and evasion, and for long-term survival under siege conditions. If zombies really were real, this is the guide you would want by your side. The fact that Max Brooks has not taken the route of easy comedy, but has instead taken the idea to its logical conclusion, is funny on a different level.
Then, about three-quarters through the book, he deviates from the survival guide template, and starts presenting case histories of various zombie outbreaks throughout history. And this is where the veneer of comedy starts to come off. Of course zombies don’t exist, but if for the sake of suspension of disbelief you buy into the author’s premise, he now starts making the case that zombie outbreaks have been on the increase throughout the 20th century, that they are starting to reach a worrying level, and that information about them is being suppressed. Now you realize that the book isn’t just a common-or-garden survival handbook, but that the author persona believes that a book like The Zombie Survival Guide is genuinely needed. He believes that the world is in imminent danger of a Class 4 outbreak. Is he a conspiracy nut, or a prescient voice of reason sounding the alarm?
And suddenly you realize that the book you just read was not humour at all, but horror.
It’s very clever, but to a large extent it feels mostly like an introduction to a bigger piece, which is probably the follow-up book World War Z: An Oral History. This tells of the aftermath of a global zombie pandemic. I’m intrigued, and looking forward to it.
Ordinary guy Matt Saunders (Luke Wilson) starts dating shy, neurotic Jenny Johnson (Uma Thurman), only to discover that she is actually the superheroine G-Girl. Jenny/G-Girl’s neuroses prove too much for Matt (she is especially jealous of his friendship with his co-worker Hannah) and he breaks up with her. A decision Jenny doesn’t take too well.
For the most part this is a funny, clever riff on the everyday life of a superhero. The humour is mature and sometimes crude, and much less silly than you might expect. Although Uma Thurman takes things a bit over-the-top, Rainn Wilson as Matt’s dorky buddy, and Eddie Izzard as the mild-mannered supervillain provide excellent support, and the cast spark off each other in a very engaging way.
In fact, right up until the closing scenes I was thoroughly enjoying myself. But OMG the ending is a mess. It shakes off any pretense of subtlety and intelligence, and dives into to a poorly shot and appallingly special-effected girly cat fight, followed by a “let’s all be friends” wrap-up in which all enmities are quickly forgiven and forgotten. Given the imagination and decent screenwriting apparent in the rest of the film, it’s a lapse of creativity that led to me shaking my head in disappointment as I walked out of the cinema.