“Get SMART” is a film mistaken about its own identity. As a reworking of one of the great 1960s TV comedies, you’d think being funny would be its main goal. But you would be wrong. Very, very wrong.
Like its protagonist, in-over-his-head secret agent Maxwell Smart, “Get Smart” yearns to be something it’s not. Unaccountably eager to walk in the footsteps of James Bond, “Get Smart” neglects the laughs and amps up the action, resulting in a not very funny comedy joined at the hip to a not very exciting spy movie. Talk about killing two birds with one stone.
Making it all that much more perplexing is that the original show, created by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry and starring the exquisitely earnest Don Adams as Agent 86 and Barbara Feldon as the soignee Agent 99, seemed so effortlessly funny.
Screenwriters Tom J. Astle and Matt Ember (credited on the unremarkable “Failure to Launch”) have brought back many of the trademarks of the TV series, including the iconic shoe phone, robot agent Hymie and the dreaded Cone of Silence. Perhaps as a tribute to Brooks, they’ve upped the film’s Yiddish quotient as well, with a character named Nudnik Shpilkes.
But for reason or reasons unknown, the filmmakers have decided to retool Maxwell Smart’s personality. Instead of Adams’ guileless ineptitude, Steve Carell, normally an exceptionally funny individual, has been encouraged to play Agent 86 as someone who is actually moderately capable. The actor insists in the media notes that he wanted to avoid impersonation and “tap into the essence of the character,” but whatever you call it, it’s not very amusing.
Compounding this problem is “Get Smart’s” determination to turn itself into what the studio is calling an action comedy. That means multiple fight scenes, several fiery explosions and a multitude of stunts, including an elaborate car-plane chase and a multi-person parachute jump without enough chutes. Are you laughing yet?
Unfortunately, director Peter Segal, a graduate of the Adam Sandler School for Comedy (“The Longest Yard,” “50 First Dates” and “Anger Management”) is incapable of making any of this action play other than perfunctory. Nor is he any better attempting to forge, no kidding, a genuine emotional connection between Smart and Agent 99 (a game if overmatched Anne Hathaway). Now why didn’t Buck and Mel think of that?
It’s almost inevitable that the film’s humor causes the occasional smile, but “Get Smart” misfires in that area more often than it hits. Especially inept are attempts at up-to-the-minute political satire, including a painfully miscast James Caan as a president thuddingly modeled on George W. Bush.
As to “Get Smart’s” actual plot, it is nothing more than a knockoff of standard issue spy material centering on the concept that the TV show’s rivalry between the evildoers of KAOS and the good guys from CONTROL continues to this day.
Like “Ironman,” this is also an origins story of sorts, showing us how desk-bound analyst Smart, who always yearned to be a field operative like the legendary Agent 23 (a relaxed and funny Dwayne Johnson), finally gets his chance and teams with the more experienced Agent 99.
Together these two travel to Russia, hot on the trail of KAOS honcho Siegfried (a bored Terence Stamp) and stolen nuclear material. Everyone ends up in Walt Disney Concert Hall, a plot turn that offers the opportunity for some fine aerial shots of the building but little else.
Because of its determination to put pro forma action ahead of everything, “Get Smart” doesn’t do enough with the comic abilities of several people, starting with Carell. Alan Arkin doesn’t get a chance to be more than adequate as CONTROL’s leader, and Ken Davitian, who played Borat’s sidekick, isn’t as funny as he should be as a Siegfried associate. Coming off best, perhaps because his role is tiny, is Bill Murray as tree-bound Agent 13.
Still, one has to wonder what the late Don Adams, one of the people the film is dedicated to, would have thought of this concoction. If you’ve never experienced the pleasures of the original yourself, it’s fair to say that brief clips available free on YouTube provide more laughs than this entire benighted enterprise.
“Get Smart.” MPAA rating: PG-13 for some rude humor, action violence and language. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes. In general release.