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‘Get Smart’ falls short in spying and spoofing

If director Peter Segal and writers Tom J. Astle and Matt Ember didn’t want Maxwell Smart to be a bumbling boob, fine, but they haven’t given him much of a personality.
/ Source: contributor

The original “Get Smart” TV series, created by comic geniuses Mel Brooks and Buck Henry, encapsulated two of the great genres of the 1960s: the spy movie and the spoof. But now that even the 007 movies have become, if not self-parodies, at least coolly ironic, there’s not that much for the new “Get Smart” movie to mock. The result is a secret-agent satire that’s neither fish nor fowl. The comedy is only so-so, and the espionage action isn’t much of a thrill either.

Still, Steve Carell gamely attempts to fill the phone-shoes of Don Adams as Maxwell Smart. While the original show’s Smart was a brash jackass who excelled at the spy game mostly through sheer luck and accident, Carell’s Smart is a desk jockey who longs to get out into the field where the action is. (Wasn’t this also the plot of “Bee Movie”?) The chief (Alan Arkin) wants to keep Max in the CONTROL office because of Max’s talents for turning chatter overheard by satellite into 500-page reports, but when a double agent trashes the agency’s secret headquarters and compromises the identity of its agents, Max gets his shot at the big time.

He and the sultry Agent 99 (Anne Hathaway) head off to Russia, where they follow black-market warheads being manufactured and sold by KAOS agent Siegfried (Terence Stamp, who’s given precious little to do). 99 is, of course, less than thrilled to have to drag a rookie around on an important mission, but Max winds up having his own set of special gifts, from knowing which restaurant is a favorite of KAOS flunkies to performing gymnastics that allow him to get through a room full of crisscrossing lasers.

And that’s kind of the problem with the new “Get Smart” — if director Peter Segal and writers Tom J. Astle and Matt Ember didn’t want Maxwell Smart to be a bumbling boob, fine, but they haven’t given him much of a personality to substitute for the old one. Carell does his damnedest to give some spin to old catchphrases like “Would you believe …?” and “Missed it by that much,” but it’s obvious that there’s no clear vision behind who Max 2.0 is and what he’s about.

The film works best when it gives Carell and Hathaway a chance to play off each other, such as a hilarious ballroom-dancing sequence where Max whirls a zaftig woman around the floor, making her feel like the sexiest lady at the party. Hathaway clearly relishes the chance to kick a little ass while wearing tight, zip-up outfits that would have gotten the OK from Miranda Priestley in “The Devil Wears Prada,” and she even gives her voice an occasional Barbara Feldon–ish lilt. (But no Feldon cameo? A pox on the producers!)

There were certainly opportunities for “Get Smart” to give current events the same level of mockery that the old show applied to the Cold War — there’s a major plot point about yellowcake uranium, for goodness sakes — but the best it can do is to give us James Caan as a dopey president who reads “Goodnight Moon” to a class of school children.

A beloved character makes a last-minute appearance in the hopes of making the audience hanker for a sequel, but it’s too little, too late. “Get Smart” won’t be a horrible stain on the rising film careers of Carell and Hathaway, but it would behoove both of these charming performers to find scripts that live up to this film’s title.