It seemed like a natural: Redo "Get Smart," the landmark '60s TV spy spoof, with Steve Carell. Who better to update Maxwell Smart -- the idiot-savantish secret agent originated by Don Adams -- than "The Office's" master of disassociative, self-effacing humor? But in the end, a bigscreen version of television's "Get Smart" had issues to address -- the hero was too one-dimensional, the female lead too adoring, the Cold War too over.
It seemed like a natural: Redo “Get Smart,” the landmark ’60s TV spy spoof, with Steve Carell. Who better to update Maxwell Smart — the idiot-savantish secret agent originated by Don Adams — than “The Office’s” master of disassociative, self-effacing humor? But in the end, a bigscreen version of television’s “Get Smart” had issues to address — the hero was too one-dimensional, the female lead too adoring, the Cold War too over. So helmer Peter Segal’s formulaic takeoff is neither fish nor fowl, not quite faithful to the show, but not quite bringing it into the 21st century either. It may ride Carell’s star to major B.O., at least initially. But it’s nothing you want to take off your shoe and call home about.
In changing the tone of the original NBC sitcom, Segal’s “Get Smart” creates a more endearing Max. Scripters Tom J. Astle and Matt Ember have concocted an origin story that tells how Maxwell Smart became the man he was: Rather than the Inspector Clouseau-esque, oblivious-to-insult, hero played by Adams, Carell’s Max is an eager, sincere, sensitive, efficient analyst for the mysterious U.S. espionage agency CONTROL.
He’s a first-rate wonk, but he longs to be an agent in the field. He wants to fight and shoot. He passes the agent’s exam with flying colors. But as the Chief (Alan Arkin) tells him, he’s too valuable where he is. So Max is destined to stay indoors (many doors, slamming shut behind him) and prepare his notoriously boring reports for the likes of Agent 23 (Dwayne Johnson), who is out there every day making the world safe for democracy.
It is only when KAOS — CONTROL’s nemesis, led by the evil Siegfried (a thoroughly wasted Terence Stamp) — manages to compromise virtually every CONTROL agent that Max gets his long-dreamed-of promotion — and the movie gets going.
There’s no one else the Chief can to turn to, except Agent 99 (Anne Hathaway), who’s had a total rhinoplastic makeover and is thus still under cover. Can Max rise to the challenge? Can he survive his partnership with 99?
There’s a lot of nodding and winking toward the old show, including Max’s musical march through the multiple security gates that also introduced the Mel Brooks/Buck Henry-created series. This is a good thing, because otherwise we might forget that we’re watching “Get Smart” at all.
We might, in fact, imagine we’d wandered into some other cookie-cutter comedy, one in which we expect romance-edged jousting between principals. This is the biggest tonal change from the original “Get Smart”: Agent 99, who was played in the ’60s by Barbara Feldon as a Max-worshipping vamp (and who was better at spying than Max was), has become someone more independent, but also a little shrewish. Hathaway’s 99 is more capable than Max but isn’t prepared to do anything to mollify the ego of her less-experienced partner.
On the contrary, theirs is a relationship based on competition and bickering — which is, frankly, all very conventional spy-vs.-spy/war-of-the-sexes stuff that abandons the daffy spirit that Brooks and Henry cooked up. Granted, times have changed, and a compliant 99 might not cut it with contemporary audiences. But a lot of the comedy seems to have been lost in the translation.
On one hand, Carell is a total nerd; on the other, he’s too self-aware and nuanced to be an homage to the original Max. The genius of his Michael Scott on “The Office” doesn’t come through here, and it might have, because Scott and (the original) Maxwell Smart share a clinical distance from their fellow humans that accounts for, and perhaps excuses, their behavior.
Carell’s Max is decent, deserving, subtly witty and comic, which makes him far more appropriate as both a Carell character and a modern hero. But he’s not always a perfect fit as the centerpiece of spy farce.
There is a lingering affection among some groups for the TV show, and among young auds for Carell, who has shown that he is perfectly capable of stretching as an actor, as in “Little Miss Sunshine.” But otherwise, why redo “Get Smart” if you are going to discard the elements that defined your inspiration?