Director : Peter Segal
Screenplay : Tom J. Astle & Matt Ember (based on characters created by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2008
Stars : Steve Carell (Maxwell Smart), Anne Hathaway (Agent 99), Dwayne Johnson (Agent 23), Alan Arkin (The Chief), Terence Stamp (Siegfried), Terry Crews (Agent 91), David Koechner (Larabee), James Caan (The President), Bill Murray (Agent 13), Patrick Warburton (Hymie), Masi Oka (Bruce), Nate Torrence (Lloyd), Ken Davitian (Shtarker)
In Get Smart, Steve Carell steps into the shoes originally worn by comedian Don Adams in the late-’60s parodic spy series, albeit there are no phones in the soles this time around. The general lack of mobile shoe-phone technology is not the only obvious change from the original television series, but it turns out that most of the updates, tweaks, and adjustments are to the movie’s benefit. Screenwriters Tom J. Astle and Matt Ember (Failure to Launch) have wisely sidestepped any desire to parody a parody and instead used the basic premise of the show as a foundation for a broad action comedy that works more often than not because of the sheer will of the talent involved. Even when the jokes aren’t all that funny, Carell and company make them work.
One of the biggest changes has been to the character of Maxwell Smart: No longer a bumbling, egotistical idiot whose last name is purely ironic, Smart has been refashioned into an extremely intelligent and meticulous analyst who has long dreamed of becoming a field agent for CONTROL, the ultra-top-secret U.S. spy agency for which he works. Once this dream comes true, Smart (now christened Agent 86) discovers that knowing everything in the book doesn’t always translate into success in the field, thus his bumbling takes on an extra dimension of humor. Carell has, of course, honed the art of being a misguided thinks-he-knows-it-all to a laser-sharp point on The Office, and he brings some of that to Get Smart, albeit without the un-self-conscious ignorance. Maxwell Smart is, if anything, hyper-self-conscious (especially about his weight, which had long held him back from being an agent), and this additional layer of neuroticism gives his character a particularly modern feel.
Smart is partnered with the beautiful Agent 99 (Anne Hathaway), who has all the experience and instincts that Smart lacks. They have an immediately antagonistic relationship that is a clear set-up for eventual romance, but Carell and Hathaway develop such tense chemistry that it’s easy to forget the obviousness of it all. Their bickering (with him asserting his superior knowledge while she asserts her experience in the field) has a decidedly quirky he said/she said vibe that eventually turns into outright one-upmanship that strikes true comedic gold in a tango sequence in which Smart and his comically hefty partner show surprising flair on the dance floor, even if it’s not always clear who’s leading whom (the “top this” look Carell gives Hathaway as he is being ludicrously dragged across the floor is priceless).
The plot centers around stolen nuclear weapons by the nefarious Siegfried (Terence Stamp, phoning in his malevolence), a member of KAOS, an all-purpose evil terrorist group that is mistakenly thought to be a long-gone relic of the Cold War. The mission to save the world (or, as it turns out, the Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles) takes Smart and Agent 99 globe-hopping, while the CONTROL headquarters are manned by The Chief (Alan Arkin), who always seems about one word away from losing it, and a pair of geeky analysts/inventors (Masi Oka and Nate Torrence) who are constantly being harassed by the alpha-dog field agents who are now stuck pushing paper because their secret identities have been revealed. This means that the über-manly Agent 23 (Dwayne Johnson), the epitome of masculine prowess and Smart’s personal hero, has replaced assassinating foreign threats with bickering about copier jams (it’s no wonder he starts stapling things to people’s foreheads).
Director Peter Segal (The Longest Yard) keeps the humor broad and accessible, moving steadily between various verbal jousts and slapstick humor that frequently challenges the threshold at which someone else’s pain is too acute to be truly funny (I’m thinking of a scene in an airplane bathroom in which Smart tries to escape from handcuffs with a miniature crossbow and ends up impaling himself half a dozen times with tiny arrows). The action scenes are played surprisingly straight, and a climactic truck/airplane/railroad showdown is quite effective in being both funny and exciting. However, given the surface success of the movie’s humor, it’s something of a letdown that it doesn’t have more of a political subtext, which was key to the original television series (it dared to make the term “U.S. intelligence” an oxymoron at the height of the Cold War). A few broad jabs at Presidential idiocy courtesy of James Caan playing a Dubya-esque Commander-in-Chief reading to schoolchildren and laughing goofily when a symphony turns into chaos notwithstanding, Get Smart is happy enough to play for straight laughs rather than truly subversive wit.
Copyright ©2008 James Kendrick
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