Although the chemistry never gels and Steve Carell is under-directed by Peter Segal (Tommy Boy,) Get Smart pulls off a sufficient number of goofy action set pieces to earn its entertainment value. Aside from the ever-flat presence of Dwayne Johnson, a good-guy spy with a jealousy issue-it’s Anne Hathaway who drags the comedy down due with a condescending attitude that permeates her role as sexpot spy Agent 99. Where Barbara Feldon played the television roll of Maxwell Smart’s capable partner with a knowing wink, Hathaway takes her hairstyle too seriously to be in on the joke-namely that Max is an idiot savant spy with a quick tongue. Don’t look for a story here because there isn’t one, but that’s as it should be for the post-post-cold-war treatment of Russia as an excuse for great location shooting in Moscow. Alan Arkin gives a snappy performance as the U.S. spy agency CONTROL Chief, referred to only as “The Chief,” and the production values are high. For a slick Hollywood summer comedy, Get Smart barely does the trick.
There’s some confusion early on about the origin of our modern-day Maxwell Smart, even as the movie sets out to mark that exact territory. Max enters a stately building that conceals CONTROL’s top-secret headquarters through a museum lobby containing his predecessor’s artifacts. The little red Sunbeam Tiger convertible, of Don Adams’ television days as Maxwell Smart, sits in a glass case, as does the ionic telephone shoe that he repeatedly used to great comic effect. But rather than create any common sense logic that might allow Carell to represent an inheriting son to Adams’ incarnation, this Maxwell Smart is thrown in cold as a report-writing nerd desperate to prove his abilities as a CONTROL agent. It’s a set-up that doesn’t work, but we play along because at least Max enters through the television show’s famous series of vault doors that lead to a phone booth that takes Max down to his subterranean command center.
It’s telling that the flick’s best scene occurs on the dance floor of a grand ballroom where Agent 99 dances with a suave Russian baddie who’s overseeing the festivities. A jealous Max walks past a group of well-dressed hotties to gain permission from an overweight woman to be his dance partner. Max and amiable new friend set about dancing a tango that steals all the thunder from Agent 99 and her urbane partner. The scene works especially well because we enjoy watching Max get some not-so-subtle revenge against Agent 99’s haughty treatment of him as a lesser agent. But it also points out one of the script’s major missteps in creating an uncomfortable relationship between the main characters that leaves us wanting them to separate rather than work together.
Mel Brooks and Buck Henry created the television series that launched Barbara Feldon and Don Adams to fame. Full of quotable one-liners, the show’s humor relied on a repetition of ideas and phrases that functioned as twitching devices for laughs. Max always “missed it by that much” or recognized a devious spy ploy as “the old (fill in the blank) trick.” Yet screenwriters Tom J. Astle and Matt Ember abandon all of the television show’s laugh-pulling jokes while rubber-stamping its rival spy organization KAOS, led by the evil Siegfried. With so much comic grist to build on, it’s a shame that the writers chose to ignore the no-brainer elements that should have shoehorned the comedy as a recognizable poke of infectious laughter. In the end, the filmmakers fell down on their most obvious job. No one was willing to get smart. MTW