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A Midsummer Night’s Report on Summer Comedy

The Stop Smiling Review

A still from Get Smart (Warner Bros.)

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Thursday, July 10, 2008


Get Smart
Directed by Peter Segal
The Love Guru
Directed by Marco Schnabel
Don’t Mess with the Zohan
Directed by Dennis Dugan

By Mark Asch

The Golden Age of Hollywood studio as author is much discussed in cinema studies, from the urban edge of Warner Brothers’ gangster stars to Universal’s importation of cosmopolitan talent to gloss its horror cheapies. Similarly acknowledged is the role of the individual mogul-producer following the breakdown of the studio system and beyond. Now, with most mainstream American film a product of corporate conglomeration and international financing, authorship is increasingly a matter of marketing strategy, of shaping films to fit a demographic and a slot on the calendar. Cloverfield, as discussed by Michael Cieply in the New York Times this January, originated when Paramount executive Rob Moore “watched a little step-dancing film called Stomp the Yard clean up over [2007’s] Martin Luther King’s Birthday weekend, and … figured his company could do the same if it had some cheap popcorn fare ready for the holiday in 2008.” Something’s Gotta Give and bland catch-all The Holiday, say, seem the product less of writer-director Nancy Meyers than of the advisability of having female stars engaged in romantic-comic situations during December’s shopping and family outing season. The “summer comedy,” too, is a genre whose narrative strategies are applied in recognition of patterns of consumer habit.

Get Smart exists because it’s a good idea to put out a movie called Get Smart, a title with a significant amount of goodwill among viewers who fondly recall the Sixties sitcom. Aside from its first-run Boomer audience, it was a steady presence in syndication; the original formula of corny one-liners and easy-to-follow action setpieces is a winner among kids, meaning a significant amount of nostalgic cachet down the road. Steve Carell’s Maxwell Smart is a bumbling newbie where the Don Adams creation was a self-assured cock-up, so a prequel-ish plot sees secret agent man Smart taking the field for the first time and winning over Anne Hathaway’s Agent 99, Smart’s adoring sidekick throughout the TV series. Though of the same genus as TV’s Smart, this pratfalling spy is an entirely different animal — so it’s no surprise that the movie is hurt more than helped by having to carry over character names and shoehorn in the show’s greatest hits, Carell and Hathaway’s rhythm faltering with every recycled catchphrase.

To expand its utility in the marketplace, Get Smart is also an action movie, featuring a skydiving chase borrowed from Point Break, a dance of seduction played out in a field of red lasers à la Entrapment, a climactic convergence of plane, train and automobile, et cetera. Some yuks (from both the top-billed cast and an overpopulated backup team culled from momentarily popular TV shows), a little romantic tension, some explosions: these are things that people go to the movies for in the summer, grouped around a known commodity.

A person, of course, can also be the known commodity. This is how the world ended up with The Love Guru, a casserole of Mike Myers’ pet gags — his Guru Pitka character is built up, but not very, from a funny accent he sometimes slips into with friends, while the plot hangs, but not very tightly, around his favorite hockey team — bloated to a big-ticket scale. The contemptuous reviews Love Guru has been receiving are probably deserved, but almost surprising, in a way: It’s a nearly impossible movie to even concentrate on while watching. The Love Guru exhausts all its recurring jokes (“Mariska Hargitay” as an Indian greeting, Pitka’s Eastern Philosophy for Dummies homilies) in the first half-hour and then hangs around, vaguely, as Myers giggles to himself while offloading all the midget jokes he couldn’t work into the Austin Powers movies. (The only one laughing is school’s-out-for-summer staple and adolescent fantasy Jessica Alba, appallingly compliant as usual.) The Love Guru just feels lazy, filling time with jokes about Celine Dion, Oprah Winfrey, Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, Myers and Kanye West’s Katrina telethon appearance — essentially, inside jokes for everyone in the world with cable.

What distinguishes both the something-for-everyone Get Smart and the lowest-common-denominator Love Guru — though it’s more masked by the polish and occasional spark of the former — is a basic confusion about address. Who, exactly, are these movies for? The most popular American comedies of recent years have featured cohorts of guys, led by Will Ferrell or Judd Apatow, trying to crack each other up; this confident targeting of a specific audience is how comedy coheres into a distinguishable sensibility. And a distinguishable sensibility is, as we’ve learned time and again, more approachable than a sensibility tailored by the shape of the market.

As its title would suggest, You Don’t Mess with the Zohan is a self-confident comedy, made by some self-confident comedians: star Adam Sandler co-writing with Apatow and Robert Smigel. Which is maybe how it sells nearly two hours of Sandler, as an Israeli special ops soldier turned hairstylist, speaking in the “you like-a the juice” voice and shaking his crotch. It’s perhaps not much of a schtick, but it’s a cohesive schtick, with the sub-schticks of the entire cast well integrated in support and counterpoint, supportive or imitative of or disgusted or bemused by Sandler’s oversexed, Eighties-fixated SuperJew.

One may wish that the integration didn’t include John Turturro and especially a brown-faced Rob Schneider as zealots for the Palestinian cause, and the fraternal atmosphere leads, as it invariably does, to exclusionary gender politics (reaching a nadir as Israelis and Palestinians put aside their political differences to size up the women of American politics, complete with obviously dubbed-in topical references to the asses of “Obama’s wife” and “McCain’s wife”). But Zohan’s otherwise unfailingly politically correct, from its frequent declarations of both Israel and Palestine’s responsibility for their conflict and desire for peace, down to the structure of individual gags — Sandler refuses to retaliate as Turturro whacks him repeatedly across the face with an iron bar, in what’s actually a pretty apt metaphor for moral fortitude in the face of violent provocation. (The movie also seems to suggest that the geographical distance and essentially secular aspirations of American society can help reconcile the two sides to one another.) In a less notable but no less gratifying bit of positioning, Zohan’s ultimate villain turns out to be a wealthy developer with plans to plop an Atlantic Yards-style project atop a diverse, flavorful New York community.

In truth, even a couple days after seeing Zohan, I can’t really remember much of what I laughed at. Apparently I’m less above juvenile humor than I was when I was actually a juvenile, during Sandler’s heyday. But hey, You Don’t Mess with the Zohan is what it is; Get Smart and The Love Guru aren’t even that.
 

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