One can understand all this, and still sigh that the movie version of Get Smart had to be … well, the movie version of Get Smart. Set in the present day, it casts Steve Carell as Maxwell Smart, a desk-jockey analyst for the now-underground American espionage agency CONTROL. He longs to be a field agent like his suave idol Agent 23 (Dwayne Johnson, the artist formerly known as The Rock), but his nerdy attention to detail makes him too valuable to the Chief (Alan Arkin) as a writer of reports. When CONTROL headquarters is infiltrated, however, compromising the identities of field agents everywhere, Smart is sent out with Agent 99 (Anne Hathaway) to find out why the dark organization KAOS is accumulating materials for nuclear weapons.
The premise is, of course, merely a thin excuse to send Smart into dangerous situations where he can make a mess of things. Unlike Don Adams’ bumbling Smart from the series, however, Carell’s Smart is more of an overly enthusiastic naïf—a guy eager to play the part of the tuxedo-clad super-spy even though he has the temperament and skill set of an accountant. Carell can be a hilarious performer when he’s playing uncomfortable, whether it’s repeatedly firing miniature crossbow arrows into parts of his own body, or trying to talk his way into KAOS headquarters. As anyone who has seen The 40 Year Old Virgin already knows, Steve Carell in pain can be one of the funniest things you will ever see on a movie screen.
The problem is that the people who made Get Smart—director Peter Segal (Anger Management) and screenwriters Tom J. Astle and Matt Ember (Failure to Launch)—are stuck with a movie titled Get Smart. That means that it often plays like some sort of improvisational filmmaking experiment, one in which you have to find a place to fit in specific lines of dialogue: “Sorry about that, Chief.” “Would you believe …. ?” “Missed it by that much.” The shoe telephone, the Cone of Silence, Hymie the Robot and the phone-booth elevator all make their token appearances. As surely as day follows night, there will be a cameo by a cast member from the original series (Don Adams died in 2005, so that narrows down the options somewhat). And consistently it all feels forced and awkward.
If the film were actually trying to revive the spirit of the television series—as happened just last week with The Incredible Hulk—all the nudging references might make sense. But Get Smart doesn’t really have an identity. It’s not broad genre satire or pure slapstick comedy. It takes great pains to give Max and Agent 99 sympathetic back-stories—he’s insecure from having recently been extremely overweight; she had radical plastic surgery after a failed mission—and build a potential romance. It introduces a massive yet sensitive henchman (Dalip Singh) for the villain, recalling Richard “Jaws” Kiel in 1970s-era Bond films, but doesn’t do much else with the idea. The action-packed climax—complete with speeding planes, trains and automobiles—feels too huge for what has come before. And it even tries to get political, with James Caan’s drawling parody of George W. Bush and a swipe at vocally partisan movie stars. Get Smart the series had a specific target; Get Smart the film is a summer-movie patchwork quilt.
The frustration is that sprinkled throughout are some genuinely funny bits and pieces, including Bill Murray’s wonderfully goofy appearance as a lonely secret agent. Mostly, there’s the satisfaction of Carell’s enthusiastic performance—coupled with the distraction of a movie that can’t decide whether his Maxwell Smart is hapless or just inexperienced. A movie that wasn’t trying to fit into a pre-existing history wouldn’t have kept choking off its star’s comedic energy. This one keeps stopping in its tracks to be Get Smart, and as a result, it only gets dumb.
Steve Carell, Anne Hathaway, Alan Arkin