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No More Pussy Galore

Two more Bond parodies try different approaches to the genre's problematic chauvinism.

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GET SMART
DIRECTED BY PETER SEGAL
WRITTEN BY TOM J. ASTLE AND MATT EMBER
WITH STEVE CARELL, ANNE HATHAWAY, DWAYNE JOHNSON, ALAN ARKIN, AND TERENCE STAMP

OSS 117: CAIRO, NEST OF SPIES ★★
DIRECTED BY MICHEL HAZANAVICIUS
WRITTEN BY HAZANAVICIUS AND JEAN FRANCOIS-HALIN
WITH JEAN DUJARDIN, BERENICE BEJO, AURA ATIKA, AND PHILIPPE LEFEBVRE

Has there ever been a movie franchise as ripe for parody as the James Bond thrillers? The series was less than three years old when, in 1965, Mel Brooks and Buck Henry dreamed up the NBC show Get Smart, with Don Adams as the bumbling superspy Maxwell Smart. A year later Dean Martin launched the tongue-in-cheek Matt Helm movies with The Silencers while James Coburn piled on as the title character in Our Man Flint. By 1967, when Peter Sellers and Woody Allen starred in a jokey version of Ian Fleming's Casino Royale, there had been more Bond spoofs than actual Bond movies. The baroque villains and fantastic gadgetry were rich veins for comedy, but the mother lode was 007 himself, an impossible male fantasy figure dispatching bad guys and bedding beautiful women.

Over the years that fantasy has suffered some real growing pains. In the postfeminist era, stunning women are still a requisite of the James Bond adventures, but gone are the days when 007 could help himself to sex kittens with such smarmy names as Holly Goodhead and Pussy Galore. Nowadays Bond's women are more likely to be kicking ass alongside him before they slip into something more comfortable. Even the spoofs have had to reckon with these shifting gender politics, though like the Austin Powers blockbusters, two specimens showing this week—the big-screen remake of Get Smart and the French import OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies—prove that satirizing the Bond formula's sexism yields a bigger comic payoff than trying to neutralize it.

Watching Get Smart, I often wondered if the filmmakers weren't trying to fix something that isn't broken. Alone among the 60s spy spoofs, Get Smart was fairly asexual, partly because network TV was so prudish back then but also because Max was such a prize doofus you could hardly imagine him putting the moves on some Mata Hari type. Though Brooks and Henry gave him a leggy sidekick, Agent 99 (Barbara Feldon), their relationship was more equal than anything in the Bond movies. She always let Max take the lead, alerting him to danger and allowing him to react, but she was also quick to point out his idiotic miscalculations. There was never any doubt that 99 was the brains of the operation, though her tact enabled Max to persist in his smug, vainglorious pronouncements.

Apparently that doesn't cut it in 2008, because the big-screen Get Smart inverts the gender dynamic of the series, turning Max (Steve Carell) into a sidekick for the irritable 99 (Anne Hathaway). Though they're still employed by the U.S. spy agency CONTROL, she's a veteran agent skilled in hand-to-hand combat and he's a dorky intelligence analyst recently promoted to action in the field. "Not everything is a competition," Max tells her when they first meet. "If it were, I'd win," 99 replies, and their ensuing adventure is one emasculation after another. When Max accidentally ejects himself from an airplane lavatory in midflight, 99 has to strap on a parachute and leap out after him. Once on the ground she dresses him down, takes his gun, and punches him. A flashback with Carell in a fat suit reveals that Max was once obese, and a running gag has the two comparing carbs like panelists on The View.

This PC revision turns Max and 99 into two completely different characters, and no matter how well chosen Carell and Hathaway might seem for the roles, they never approach the comic chemistry of Adams and Feldon. Carell reprises some of the old catchphrases (e.g., "Would you believe ...?" and "Missed it by that much!"), but his milquetoast Max can't invest them with the crisp certitude that was Adams's stock-in-trade. Going into Get Smart, you might expect that revitalizing its 40-year-old gags would be the filmmakers' biggest challenge. But the shoe telephone and the malfunctioning Cone of Silence don't feel nearly as stale as the battle of the sexes that screenwriters Tom J. Astle and Matt Ember recycle from their last collaboration, the leaden Matthew McConaughey/Sarah Jessica Parker vehicle Failure to Launch, and from nearly every other Hollywood rom-com of the past ten years.

Leave it to the French to blow past us Americans in their treatment of sex: OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies scores many a laugh wallowing in its hero's chauvinism. The dashing French spy Hubert Bonisseur de la Bath, code name 117, was created by novelist Jean Bruce in 1949, four years prior to Bond's debut, and has since appeared in some 256 books and 8 features. This one takes place in 1955, and writer-director Michel Hazanavicius painstakingly re-creates the look of an early-60s Bond movie, using archaic rear-projection shots and favoring the lenses, lighting, and film stock of the era. Yet the strapping Agent 117, played with toothy self-regard by comedian Jean Dujardin, is the butt of every joke, with his Western ignorance (though he's the agency's "Arab expert," he's never heard of Islam) and his cocky attitude toward the ladies.

Many of the sex jokes revolve around 117's torrid, antagonistic affair with Princess Al Tarouk (Aure Atika), a kinky number who insists on being tied to the bed. ("He raped me twice," she later insists. "Maybe even more.") Hazanavicius revives the old 50s convention of chastely panning away from the lovers, but the camera catches sight of them in a mirror as 117 struggles with his fly. In the climactic action scene the princess and 117's other romantic interest (Berenice Bejo) duke it out in their silk slips as he watches admiringly. Yet for all his Gallic machismo, 117 keeps drifting off into homoerotic flashbacks of himself romping on the beach with a fellow agent (Philippe Lefebvre). Dining with his boss in the final scene, 117 defends his masculinity against the swirling rumors. "Whatever you did with your weenie, you did for France," his boss assures him. That's not enough for 117: when the waitress arrives at their table, he grabs her and kisses her hard on the mouth. Once again, the free world can rest easy.v

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