VIDEO: The trailer for Get Smart
Back in the ’60s, those crafty cranks Mel Brooks and Buck Henry spun the red-scare spook biz into a sit-com full of wit and absurdity featuring rival agencies KAOS and Control. Not such a hot concept since the fall of the Berlin Wall, perhaps, but the 2008 version does wise up by casting affable everyman geek Steve Carell as Maxwell Smart, Control Agent 86. He makes for a more self-aware and self-consciously ironic nebbish than Don Adams’s wisecracking imp on the small screen. But the film’s only real updating of the savvy, witty, and often inspired original entails dumbing it down to today’s lowered standards of comedy.
Oh and there’s a new backstory of sorts. The big-screen format gives 86 room to grow — or slim down, as the case may be, since in flashbacks we learn that Smart was too fat to pass the agent field-test requirements and had to settle for a position as a desk jockey. That is, until an assault on Control headquarters and the resulting breach of security compels the Chief (Alan Arkin filling in ably for the show’s long-suffering Edward Platt) to assign a newly svelte Smart to more-challenging duty.
That includes teaming up with the lethally competent Agent 99, with whom a generation of adolescents fell in love when she was played by the reserved, indulgent, inscrutable, and seductive Barbara Feldon. Portrayed here by a hotted-up Anne Hathaway, 99 has also thinned out, into a one-dimensional kick-ass, can-do Amazon sexpot along the lines of Angelina Jolie’s Lara Croft. This changes the romantic chemistry between the two from awkward and funny to awkward and phony.
An equally artificial plot device, as cobwebby as the Warsaw Pact, spurs them into action. The bad guys who raided Control have stowed away rogue nukes somewhere in Russia, and 86 and 99 must find them. In such a scenario, the original series could indulge in the dark Doctor Strangelove satire of the Cold War days, but the boldest the new version gets is to offer up a Cheney-esque vice-president (Geoffrey Pierson) who secretly directs Control.
As for director Peter Segal, he does a more competent job than you might expect given his previous remake, the dismal The Longest Yard (2005). He maintains a perky pace, hopping from gag to gag; if one goes flat, the next one, or the one after that, will raise a smile or a passing chuckle. There are brief encounters with enduring series icons like the immortal shoe phone and the Cone of Silence, but don’t expect any classic Mel Brooks gag sequences involving, say, a man on a stretcher and a revolving door.
What the new Smart does offer are some sparkling, offbeat supporting players: Arkin as the Chief; a decidedly un-Bush-like James Caan as the most likable president in recent US history; Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as the insufferably overconfident Agent 23. So when you consider such other ill-begotten remakes of ’60s TV spy shows as The Avengers (1998) and I Spy (2002), Get Smart doesn’t look so stupid. Next up, The Man from U.N.C.L.E?