by Bob Garver
“Get Smart” is the latest big-budget Hollywood movie based on an old TV show. Typically,
movies that take their cues from the small screen do not turn out well. This is especially true if the
film’s target audience (teenagers and young adults) is too young to remember the original series. The
show aired in the late 60s, so its chances aren’t great. And yet, it does manage to succeed, thanks
to the excellent decision to cast Steve Carell (of NBC’s “The Office”) as Maxwell Smart.
No, Carell does not play Smart quite the same way the late Don Adams did.
His performance is not an “impression” of Don Adams. He adds a lot of personal touches
that make the character seem original. The result is a different version of Maxwell Smart, but one that
works well on its own while still keeping the spirit of the original. Carell makes the movie.
Which is a good thing, because most of the spy stuff falls flat.
Smart works as an analyst for CONTROL, a government agency that keeps tabs
on terrorist activity. He’s the best analyst in the agency, but he wants to be a field agent like
his friend Agent 23 (Dwayne Johnson, apparently still trying to get people to stop calling him “The Rock”).
His boss, The Chief (Alan Arkin), informs him that he has indeed qualified to be a field agent, but he must remain
an analyst because he is even better at that job.
Naturally, CONTROL’s biggest enemy is a group called KAOS. KAOS is seemingly run by a man named Siegfried
(Terrence Stamp), but there is a boss above him. KAOS breaks into CONTROL, steals the identities of undercover
agents, and has most of them assassinated. The Chief needs to send two agents on an emergency mission,
and they have to be agents that KAOS won’t recognize. One is Agent 99 (Anne Hathaway), who has recently
had plastic surgery. The other is Smart.
The rest of the movie is Agents 99 and 86 (Smart’s new identity) on a mission to recover some stolen nuclear weapons.
They have plenty of adventures along the way, usually involving 86 thinking he can handle something, failing miserably,
and 99 bailing him out. They slowly build a relationship that we know will be tested in the line of duty.
The plot and the action are predicable and unimportant.
The 86/99 relationship is the heart of “Get Smart.” Carell has a way of making everything
he says funny, although there are a few times where the writers clearly want him to make a specific joke and he can’t
apply his improvisational style to the lines. But when Carell and Hathaway are allowed to just go at it,
they really capture lightning in a bottle. A conversation about their marriage (their backstory for an
undercover assignment) is particularly funny and captivating.
Some have pointed out the age difference between Carell and Hathaway (20 years), but it doesn’t detract from their chemistry
at all. There is actually a plot device where 99 is only a few years younger than 86, but her plastic surgery
makes her look younger than that. Honestly, it isn’t necessary. Carell and Hathaway
are fine, surgery or no surgery.
Hathaway, for her part, does a great job with Carell, although the scenes with
just her are a bit dry. Arkin’s Bitter Old Man act works well with his character. Johnson
is a weak link, although to be fair, Agent 23 is not a character from the show, so he had no model to work from.
Many will call “Get Smart” an unnecessary
TV adaptation. They have a point. The show’s simple charm has been swapped out
for shiny special effects. Modern raunchy humor may turn off audiences who found the show to be good clean
fun. The actors don’t quite nail the timing and inflection of the catchphrases, which come off sounding
forced. “Get Smart” could have been a huge misfire, but Steve Carell makes it highly enjoyable.