Get Smart (United States, 2008)
Get Smart becomes the latest in a long line of TV series to get a big-screen treatment. While we have come to expect recycled refuse from most of these (Bewitched perhaps occupying the nadir), Get Smart manages to rise above the continuum of regurgitation by walking a tightrope that allows it to appeal to those who have fond memories of the late-1960s spy spoof and those who don't know Don Adams from John Adams. Get Smart is delightfully silly and at times very funny. The characters are likeable and feel connected to their TV counterparts. And, although Mel Brooks and Buck Henry (creators of the original) are not directly involved, the filmmakers have crafted something that both men would likely agree is in the spirit of what they shepherded to the small screen.
Get Smart opens by re-creating the credits of the original, with Maxwell Smart (Steve Carell) walking through a seemingly endless series of locking doors until he gets to a telephone booth that transports him into the heart of CONTROL, a covert American intelligence agency set up to do battle with its dastardly rival, KAOS. CONTROL is presided over by The Chief (Alan Arkin), and Max is its best analyst. When an attack on CONTROL headquarters by KAOS operative Sigfried (Terrence Stamp) eliminates many of CONTROL's agents, Max is elevated from analyst to field operative and given the designation of "Agent 86." He is partnered with Agent 99 (Anne Hathaway) and sent into action. Providing them with support from the home base as they track down Sigfried is Agent 23 (Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson), who is too well-known to be able to function effectively under cover.
Steve Carell's portrayal of Max is just about perfect for the material. He doesn't try to ape Don Adams - that would have been a mistake - but there's enough of the late actor in the performance that the original Max hasn't been obfuscated. Carell delivers many of Max's signature lines ("Would you believe…?", "Missed it by THIS much") with similar inflections. When it comes to re-interpreting a well-established character from the past, Carell is far more successful than Steve Martin's hatchet job in the remake of The Pink Panther. There's a little of Barbara Feldon in Anne Hathaway's Agent 99, although her outfits and attitudes are more modern. If there's a downside to the casting of Carell and Hathaway, it's that there's not much romantic chemistry between them (although they're fine as spy buddies). Then again, Adams and Feldon had the leisure of over 100 episodes to develop what Carell and Hathaway have to convey in less than two hours. Get Smart has its share of cameos. Bernie Koppell (the original Sigfried) has a blink-and-you'll-miss-it appearance. James Caan (who appeared in two Get Smart episodes) is the President. Bill Murray lives in a tree. And several other Saturday Night Live veterans show their faces.
The plot doesn't make a lot of sense - it has to do with KAOS getting its hands on nuclear weapons. As with the series, however, this is just a skeleton to be fleshed out by gags and physical comedy. While the original Get Smart was a fairly direct satire of the James Bond series, this movie version is more an updating of the TV series than a lampoon of spy movies. That sort of thing was done to death by Austin Powers and its sequels. One of the supporting thugs (Dalip Singh), however, appears to have been modeled after The Spy Who Loved Me's Jaws.
A lot of Get Smart is just plain silly, but that's okay because it's in keeping with the tone and intent of the TV series. The film is occasionally a little raunchy (as with a scene in which Max appears to be caught in a compromising position with an enemy agent) but there's nothing here that Brooks and Henry wouldn't have tried if '60s TV had permitted it. While a lot of Get Smart's humor is more likely to provoke smiles and chuckles than anything more explosive, there are instances when full-bellied laughter could result. The movie also pokes fun at one of my pet peeves: the use of "nucular" instead of "nuclear" by a top politician.
If Get Smart faces a hurdle, it could be that viewers are tiring of these TV-to-movie transitions (perhaps because so many have been so bad), and Get Smart lacks the cachet of some of its contemporaries. It is not widely available on DVD (only as an entire series box set from Time Life) and thus has not re-entered the popular culture of the 2000s the way so many older TV shows have. This is one instance, however, when a TV series-based movie rewards nostalgia without demanding it. Get Smart is funny enough in its own right to attract younger viewers while paying homage to its 40-year old predecessor. Director Peter Segal, whose resume includes several Adam Sandler movies, shows an understanding of what made people laugh in the context of the original Get Smart and applies that knowledge to this contemporary setting. Along with his actors, screenwriters, and the rest of the crew, he has made an enjoyable mid-summer night's comedy. Would you believe that?
Get Smart (United States, 2008)
Cast: Steve Carell, Anne Hathaway, Dwayne Johnson, Alan Arkin, Terrence Stamp, James Caan, Ken Davatian, Dalip Singh
Screenplay: Tom J. Astle & Matt Ember
Cinematography: Dean Semler
Music: Trevor Rabin
U.S. Distributor: Warner Brothers