Producers keep rummaging through old television sitcoms for material, for the most part with dire results—for every “Addams Family” there’s been a “Bewitched,” “Beverly Hillbillies,” or “Honeymooners.” Now they’ve worked their way down to Don Adams’ spoof about a bumbling spy that ran from 1965 to 1970. (The character of Maxwell Smart was revived by Adams for a mediocre movie, “The Nude Bomb,” in 1980, which was followed by a TV movie and a disastrous revival featuring Andy Dick that sputtered through seven episodes in 1995.)
The creative problems with going back to these old shows are two. Do you hew faithfully to the original formula, hoping that the nostalgia factor will be enough? And how do you transform what amounts to a 22-minute sketch repeated every week into a stand-alone feature?
The makers of “Get Smart,” oddly enough, have responded to the challenge in much the same way as those who refashioned another TV spy series, “The Wild Wild West,” did back in 1999. They’ve changed the main characters markedly and overstuffed their movie with the sort of slam-bang action sequences that they think modern audiences will demand. The outcome isn’t as terrible as it was for Will Smith, but it’s still pretty bad.
Steve Carell, who shines as the obtuse branch head on “The Office,” would seem the perfect choice to play the equally oblivious Smart, but the writers have taken the titular injunction literally and transformed the character into a bright guy but a nerd, who’s drafted from a desk job to the agent duty he’s always wanted after the notorious KAOS squad attacks CONTROL’s headquarters and compromises all the field agents save 99 (Anne Hathaway), who’s just had massive plastic surgery. Together the mismatched duo—she’s not enamoured of him as Agent 99 was in the series, but instead doubts his competence—are assigned by their Chief (Alan Arkin) to track down KAOS kingpin Siegfried (Terence Stamp), who, along with his stooge lieutenant Shtarker (Ken Davitian), is threatening the world with nuclear weapons pilfered from the old USSR.
This alteration happily allows Carell to avoid mimicking the nasal nails-on-a-blackboard voice that Adams used—which would have been insufferable over the course of a whole movie (as “The Nude Bomb” proved). But although the smarter Smart is allowed some of the old Clouseau-like one’s catch-phrases (“Would you believe,” “Missed by that much”), much of the dialogue is pro-forma bickering between him and 99 that’s indistinguishable from what you might find in innumerable flicks about feuding partners. And tossing in some flashbacks to Smart’s pre-thin days (cueing a few dreary shots of Carell in fat suit) seems like an act of comic desperation.
It does, however, explain Smart’s sensitivity toward people of girth, which is necessary as background to an elaborate sequence in which he chooses to dance with a woman of considerable amplitude. The episode’s nothing but a cadenza, and would be more successful if it had been better directed (Peter Segal is no master of timing) and more sharply edited.
But it, and other comic bits clumsily inserted into the plot (some of them—a simulated same-sex act, a mooning at the close—out of synch with the general tone) are less objectionable than the sequences of misjudged violence and the oversized action scenes strewn through the picture. An episode in which Smart uses a little harpoon gun to try to extricate himself from handcuffs makes you wince rather than laugh, and another in which he’s pummeled by prison guards is more brutal than funny.
We’re also treated to a succession of slam-bang moments (a free-fall from a plane complete with assassins and knives, a mission to blow up Siegfried’s missile-building plant, a raucous car-plane chase in Los Angeles) that aren’t just exhaustingly loud and protracted, but poorly choreographed and, for the most part, terribly shot and edited. (For some reason Dean Semler, usually so reliable, chose to shoot them in wild hand-held form, so that they look blurred and sloppy, and editor Richard Pearson stitches them together so that it’s often impossible to tell what’s happening.) The big finish, at Disney Hall, is also a bummer, and not just technically: why have the big revelation hinge on the presence of a piano in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony—which, of course, has no part for the instrument? (There’s also no surprise in who the ultimate bad-guy is. There’s only one candidate in sight.)
Throughout it all Carell puts on his best deadpan face, but it’s not enough to carry such a load; and Hathaway is surprisingly bland. Dwayne Johnson preens as superspy Agent 23, and Arkin has exactly one funny line as the Chief—as does James Caan, who puts in an appearance as the president and offers a jibe at our present one. That’s more than can be said of Stamp, who’s understandably stiff reciting his drearily gruff lines (Davitian is far more engaging as his lapdog). Among the others, Nate Torrence and Masi Oka (of “Heroes”) get some easy laughs as Max’s even nerdier but supportive colleagues, but David Koechner and Terry Crews are simply irritating as the arrogantly dismissive ones. And cameos by the likes of Bill Murray, Kevin Nealon and Larry Miller simply tank. Trevor Rabin’s score makes the obligatory nod to the themes from the series.
But that merely reminds us of how much things have changed. “Get Smart” makes the same mistake “The Wild Wild West” did—it uses the old show merely as a springboard for a fairly conventional comedy-action movie that’s louder, more frenetic and, ultimately, dumber. Get lost, Max.