Sunday, June 29, 2008

Get smart, but not too smart

Apropos of my recent reading of Bertie and the Seven Bodies by Peter Lovesey, Lee Goldberg posts a relevant criticism of the new Get Smart movie. The problem with that movie and with Steve Martin's Pink Panther remake, Goldberg writes, is that "someone made the inept decision to make the bumbling heroes smart and capable ... and very good at what they do." This, he says, robbed the two protagonists of that which made them so funny: the gap between their inflated estimates of their own capabilities and what they were actually capable of.

Lovesey's Bertie, Prince of Wales, is similarly good-hearted and similarly deluded about the extent of his own capabilities as a sleuth. Lovesey has fun with this delusion literally from the novel's opening page: "Damnit, one small oversight and I'm branded as a failure. If I'd looked in the wretched wastepaper basket my chain of reasoning would have been different, altogether different."

And now, readers, what are your thoughts on crime-fiction bumblers? Who are your favorite such characters? Why do you like them? How would your feeling about them change if they were more capable and less prone to bumbling?

© Peter Rozovsky 2008

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21 Comments:

Blogger Gerald So said...

I liked the original Clouseau and Maxwell Smart. I also liked Leslie Nielsen as Frank Drebin.

I like bumblers for their very fallibility. They are more like me than classic heroes are. To make bumblers more heroic is to make them different characters. My feelings about the originals wouldn't change; I just wouldn't relate the new versions.

June 29, 2008  
Blogger GJG said...

The bumblers, thats is to say the original bumblers, (not to be confused with the remake knockoffs), make good movies, I am no so sure they make good hero's in writing--in that so much of their bumbling is visual. I'm writing this, not being fully awake and my mind is flashing on a series of books with a playboy detective, in Palmbeach, Florida, first name Archie---and then my mind goes blank ---unable to pull up the authur and creator of the character -----

June 29, 2008  
Anonymous BV Lawson said...

The saddest thing about these remakes to me is the seeming lack of originality in Hollywood, as studio execs continually try to reinvent the wheel. When someone truly "defines" a role as beautifully as Peter Sellars did with Inspector Clouseau, why not just move on to a different character altogether? Apparently even Steve Martin dragged his feet for some time because he didn't want to step into Sellars's shoes...guess that dump truck of money just got too big.

June 29, 2008  
Blogger pattinase (abbott) said...

Clouseau is the prince of bumblers. And Sellers was the master. I just don't understand why you'd remake a movie(s) that was perfect. Remake the ones that weren't. Steve Carrel was miscast in that part. He doesn't have the "attitude" necessary for Maxwell Smart.
Not a crime fiction bumbler, but I love Mr. Hulot.

June 29, 2008  
Blogger Vanda Symon said...

I haven't seen the new Get Smart movie, so can't judge it. My opinion. Give us the bumblers!
Who is Agent 99 in the movie? If Maxwell Smart isn't a true bumbler, then she wouldn't be able to give him those fabulous "Oh Max" looks.

Inspector Gadget's another lovely bumbler.

June 29, 2008  
Blogger Philip said...

As often with such questions, this one brings to mind an author read long ago whose books are not often come across these days -- Joyce Porter and her Wilfred Dover series. For sheer incompetence, sloth, rudeness and grossness of habit, Dover pretty well takes the biscuit. At their best, the books are very funny and good for an occasional diversion. The problem with them in quantity is that they play rather too much on one note, but that, I find, is a problem with all the 'bumblers', even Clouseau.

June 30, 2008  
Blogger The Clandestine Samurai said...

I can't really say I know any off the top of my head, but I did want to see "Get Smart".

June 30, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

CC, I should be able to report back on Get Smart tomorrow. I am in the company of my two young nephews, who want to see it, and today's weather is fine for movies.

June 30, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Wow, this post seems to have struck a chord. We all love our bumblers who somehow win in the end. Like Gerald, I like Frank Drebin as well as Clouseau and Maxwell Smart. I also like Lee Goldberg's speculation that Steve Martin and Steve Carrell may have grown too self-important to play bumblers.

June 30, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

BV, I never saw The Brady Bunch Movie, but I remember that it won praise for its ironic stance toward the original. I wonder if that movie got producers thinking that could be especially free in their adaptations of old TV shows and movies. And I like the suggestion that money may have overcome Steve Martin's scruples about stepping into the great Peter Sellers' comic shoes.

June 30, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Philip, I had not heard of Joyce Porter and Wilfred Dover, but your description makes the series sound irresistable: "For sheer incompetence, sloth, rudeness and grossness of habit, Dover pretty well takes the biscuit."

Vanda: Anne Hathaway plays Agent 99 in the movie. I, too, wonder what her role in the movie will be if Max's newfound competence removes her role as his steady, competent foil. Was the Get Smart television series shown ni New Zealand?

June 30, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

GJG, the bumblers may work better on the page than on screen, but don't forget P.G. Wodehouse's Bertie Wooster. He was no detective, but he was arguably an inspiration for at least some of the crime-fiction bunglers who followed him.

My mind is also blank on the Palm Beach playboy detective named Archie. Can anyone help on this?

June 30, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Patti, your comment could spin off into a number of posts. Why remake: Casablanca? Rear Window? Pink Panther -- except one might ask Blake Edwards why make Pink Panther sequels (if he, in fact, directed them).

If I do see the Get Smart movie, and if I find it falls short of the series, I'll ask myself whether the fault is Stave Carrell's attitude, or the movie's script.

I love Mr. Hulot, too, perhaps especially so right now, since I am on a beach vacation as I write this. I liked Mr. Hulot's Holiday a lot better than I did Mon Oncle Antoine and Play Time, the other Jacques Tati movies I've seen.

June 30, 2008  
Blogger Dave Knadler said...

I can't think of many lovable bumblers in crime fiction, but the first character I thought of when I read the post was Bertie Wooster. Another in that vein is Jim Dixon in Kingsley Amis' Lucky Jim. There are a couple of scenes in that book that remain among the funniest of all time.

June 30, 2008  
Blogger Dave Knadler said...

As to the Archie people are referring to, could it be Archie McNally, the creation ( I think) of Lawrence Sanders?

June 30, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

For myself and on behalf of GJG, thanks. The reading list just keeps on growing.

June 30, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Bertie Wooster is recurring presence, especially since Lovesey's protagonist is another Bertie.

June 30, 2008  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

Here's a review of Get Smart which objects to the "new improved halfway-smart Maxwell Smart" by a friend of mine, a devoted cinefile.

June 30, 2008  
Blogger Vanda Symon said...

They managed a few good TV shows in NZ when I was a kid. I had a steady diet of the important things : Get Smart, Thunderbirds and Star Trek.

June 30, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Vanda, it sounds as if we had similar upbringings in some respects. Those series were a part of my youth as well. I even had plastic toys of some of the weird air and watercraft from Thunderbirds. There sure are not too many science-fiction/adventure series with puppets on TV these days.

July 01, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Linkmeister, "halfway smart" is a good description of the character. It fits nicely with a post I may make in the next day or two following yesterday's viewing of the Get Smart movie.

July 01, 2008  

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