A film review by Craig J. Koban


2008, PG-13, 110 mins.

Maxwell Smart: Steve Carell / Agent 99: Anne Hathaway / Agent 23: Dwayne Johnson / The Chief: Alan Arkin / Agent 13: Bill Murray / Siegfried: Terence Stamp / President: James Caan / Hymie: Patrick Warburton

Directed by Peter Segal / Written by Tom J. Astle and Matt Ember, based on the characters by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry

Ah…the old “let’s take an already immortally classic and beloved TV show from the 60’s an adapt it into a lavish, big budget, and glossy summer movie season cash cow” trick. 

But…would you believe…. that this is a rare movie adaptation of small screen source material that seems...pretty decent? 

Sometimes…I find myself, much like CONTROL Secret agent, Maxwell Smart, bracing danger at every corner when I go to see witless and banal TV-to-movie adaptations (and…lovin’ it), and there has certainly been a relative slew of stinkers in the last few years.  This is my least favorite genre, considering that it commonly displays how sincerely bereft of good ideas and ingenuity that Hollywood studios are these days.  Look at the laundry list of wretched TV-movies: SCOOBY DOO, THE BEVERLEY HILLBILLIES, THE FLINTSTONES, CHARLIE'S ANGELS, DUDLEY DO-RIGHT, LOST IN SPACE, THE MOD SQUAD, WILD WILD WEST, I,SPY...Oh…I could go on forever, but I don’t want to bore you. 

I think this is why I approached the passage of Mel Brooks and Buck Henry’s Emmy winning 1960’s spy satire, GET SMART, from TV sets to cineplexes with a considerable amount of hesitation and concern.  The series – in both my mind and in the hearts of millions of fans – is one of the few great American television comedies to emerge from the late sixties.  Dubbed by Brooks as an “insane combination of James Bond and a Mel Brooks comedy,” the series – which ran for 138 hilarious episodes from 1965 to 1968 – emerged as a smart, sly, and insidiously funny parody.  The late, great Don Adams is also so universally respected and remembered for his role of bumbling agent Smart that the thought of anyone tampering with the greatness of his cunning comic inventiveness and creativity for the purpose of shamelessly remaking it seems like sacrilege.  After all…we all remember the abortively terrible PINK PANTHER remake from few years ago where Steve Martin (a great comedian in his own right) fell flat on his face trying to appropriate the comic virtuosity of the legendary Peter Sellers.  Bad form, indeed.

Yet…despite my intense resistance…it’s hard to deny that this new GET SMART gets it right…most of the time.  It certainly deserves to go on a very scant list of successful TV-to-movie adaptations (like the first ADAMS FAMILY, THE BRADY BUNCH, SERENITY, and STARSKY AND HUTCH), but it does not achieve the same level of prominence that some of the best adaptations have achieved (like THE FUGITIVE, MIAMI VICE, and some of the STAR TREK and MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE films).  However, GET SMART does find a nice dichotomy between being slavishly faithful to the source material while venturing out on its own by creating something fresh and revitalizing.  This big screen treatment does not go for broke and radically alter and tamper with the tone of the original show (like STARSKY AND HUTCH did, making the 70’s cop show an all-out comedy farce), so on those levels GET SMART does not really get huge marks for being daring and inventive.  Yet, this should not come as a condemnation of the enterprise, seeing as the film, no doubt, will appease the show’s many appreciators while simultaneously getting laughs from agnostic Get Smart-aholics.  On those levels, the film is a reputable achievement. 

Casting the film is key here, and I think GET SMART has some wise choices.  Steve Carell has the monumentally thankless task of trying to recapture Don Adam’s spark, but the most satisfying aspect of Carell’s take is that he – unlike Steve Martin’s take on Inspector Clousseau – does not go for all-out mimicry.  Instead of trying to capture all of Adam’s inflections and personality nuances, Carell makes the role his own by personifying the part with his own hybrid of goofy and affable charm, an awkward inept physical dexterity, and a willingness to play things both modestly straight and remarkably silly.  On those terms, his Maxwell Smart captures the tone and feel of Adam’s everlasting performance while not trying to duplicate, one-up, or be too nostalgic towards it.  Yes, the outer façade of Carell is tailored to look like Adams’ 60’s counterpart, and many of the now classic catchphrases are all here (a lack there of would be a slap in the face to fans), but Carell fluently slips into the part by acknowledging its antecedent on TV while making it feel fresh.  That’s what all good remakes should aspire to achieve. 

The film essentially gives us the familiar particulars of the GET SMART universe: characters, relationships, and the roles of the protagonists and antagonists are resurrected simply and unobtrusively from the TV show.  All of your favorite characters are here while some new ones are brought in.  But, this movie version also serves as an origin film, of sorts, that shows how Smart climbed the ranks of CONTROL, a super secret US agency that is like the CIA, but not as respected.  As we are introduced to Max we see him as a geeky, clumsy, but highly resourceful and determined, analyst for CONTROL, whose job it is to decipher conversations that involve agents of KAOS, the evil Russian group that wants to destroy CONTROL and the US as a whole.  Max thinks he’s really on to something when he reveals hundreds of pages of exerts from conversations that involve the enemy…eating muffins.  Of course, this mystifies his boss, appropriately named Chief (Alan Arkin, very funny here), but Max thinks that there is something larger to read into here:  People eat unhealthy muffins, high in fat and cholesterol, because it makes them feel better when they experience anxiety and unease.  Of course, being a man that can’t see the forest because the trees are in the way, Max fails to uncover that the bakery these conversations occur in is also a front to make uranium for nukes. 

Max desperately yearns to be a field agent, but his predilection to innate incompetence makes the Chief feel otherwise.  Things change, though, when the offices of CONTROL are ambushed by a KAOS operative named Siegfried (Terrace Stamp, getting some huge laughs here by always underplaying his hilarious lines).  Realizing that he can’t send his best agent, 23 (Dwyane “The Rock" Johnson, blending a strong physical presence with a sardonic wit) into the field because of his well-known status, the Chief begrudgingly graduates Max up to the status of field agent.  Max, of course, is elated, but he holds his emotions in and calmly and coolly requests the cone of silence so he can more discretely reveal his happiness.  Unfortunately, we all know how notoriously unreliable the cone is, and when Max shrieks out his elation through a faulty cone, with all of his office colleagues looking on, it’s one of the film’s funniest gags. 

The Chief then teams Max (now given the agent moniker "86") with the very experienced and serious Agent 99 (played well by Anne Hathaway, mixing a nice comic edge with fetching sultriness).  Much like the TV show, complications always arise because of Max’s ability to complicate every aspect of a mission, but he nevertheless is able to sometimes save the day because of his own dumb luck…and also in large part because of 99’s superior skills and smarts.   The story culminates with the pair discovering the real purpose of Siegfried’s plan to nuke LA by planting a bomb at the Walt Disney concert hall during a live performance.  

Thankfully, GET SMART generates a lot of comic mileage.  Some scenes are giddy in their merriment, as is Max’s frequent inability to utilize a special Swiss Army Knife and all of its high tech gadgets.  There is also a very funny gag with Max trying to sneak into a room that has one of those hanging bead curtains that gets a large laugh.  There is also a very funny sequence where Max tries to talk a gigantic KAOS agent (played by real life 7’2” behemoth Dalip Singh) from pulverizing him.  Max may be a complete imbecile when it comes to hand-to-hand combat, but he is skilled with making a monster of a man cry like a puppy dog. 

Many of the other supporting characters are funny as well.  Allan Arkin’s Chief has a sly and under cranked sarcasm, and Dwayne Johnson gets some big chuckles, especially with how he uses an office memo, a stapler, and a fellow heckling agent’s forehead to release some tension.  Perhaps the single funniest character is Stamps' Siegfried, whose nonchalant manner of being villainous while deadpanning insults to his henchmen in a calm and collective voice is hilarious.  At one point he turns to one of his underlings and dryly tells him, “Do you know that you’re the only human being that snores will being wide awake.” 

The film also some nice, surprising touches.  Hathaway gives a credible turn as her super sexy – yet emotionally vulnerable – super agent and she and Carell have a nice chemistry together (Hathaway in particular wisely understands that she’s the straight woman to Max’s high jinks, and playing the part broadly would have been wrong).  Also, the film has some moderately well sustained action/stunt set pieces that would rival any big summer auctioneer.  An early scene involving a villain attacking 99 and Max while parachuting is energetic and lively, and a climatic chase sequence involving a truck, a small engine airplane, a train, and Max dangling from the banner on the plane is kind of exhilarating.  In terms of blending nail biting action with unapologetically silly pratfalls, GET SMART is highly competent. 

However, the film is comically sluggish at times.  For the many jokes that do work, some feel cheaply juvenile (a gag with Max up in a F-16 jet and a overfilled barf bag is more gross than funny, as is a sequence involving him trying to get an unconscious KAOS agent off of a table, which results with Max looking like he’s humping the man from behind to on-lookers).  There are also some squandered comic opportunities, like Bill Murray’s painfully brief cameo as Agent 13, whom fans of the show remember as an agent that disguises himself in the oddest ways possible.  There are also the standard, run-of-the-mill cameos by actors from the original (this always takes me out of the film because it's such an obvious, wink-wink distraction).  Equally frustrating is how fantastic the film manages to make Montreal (where it was shot) not look like Montreal in any way, but when we have the very famous recreation of Max entering the offices of CONTROL (through a series of endlessly locking doors and finally to a phone booth) the obviousness of the CGI here makes you reflect that the realism of the sets in the TV show were more satisfying. 

Yet, when all is said and done, GET SMART manages to placate obsessed fans of the 60’s show while making itself accessible to those that have never seen an episode of the Don Adams/Barbara Feldon spy spoof.  On paper, director Peter Segal does not inspire confidence (his resume includes such stinkers as TOMMY BOY, THE NUTTY PROFESSOR II, and two decidedly bad Adam Sandler comedies) but with GET SMART he displays a surprisingly adept hand at crafting a summer comedy blockbuster that understands the comic instincts of the original TV show and harnesses it in this modern update to good effect.  The end result is a TV remake with some rough patches, but one that nonetheless is a huge step above other pointlessly mediocre retreads. Sure, this comedy is not flawless and GET SMART misses consistent high hilarity throughout its running time...

...but only by this much.  

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