20 June 2008
So often, when filmmakers adapt classic TV shows for the big screen, the result is a parody. The actors are winking at the camera, saying, “Remember this old show? Look how much cooler we are.”
But now we have Get Smart, based on the 1960s TV series created by comedy god Mel Brooks and Buck Henry. You don’t need to spoof your source material when it’s that good.
In the role originated by Don Adams, Steve Carell stars as Maxwell Smart, an analyst for the spy agency CONTROL. Max is good at his job, routinely presenting exhaustive reports that include foreign terrorists’ coffee preferences. He’s so good, in fact, that the CONTROL chief (Alan Arkin) refuses to promote him to field agent, even though he aced the exam that should get him the job. Field agents are people like the dashing superstar Agent 23 (Dwayne “Don’t-Call-Him-The-Rock” Johnson) and the stunning Agent 99 (Anne Hathaway).
When CONTROL’s primary adversary, KAOS, launches an attack against the agency and learns the identity of every field agent, there is only one person the chief can turn to for the next mission: Max. He teams with 99, who recently had extensive plastic surgery, and soon finds himself battling bad guys in Russia. They eventually uncover KAOS top dog Siegfried’s (Terence Stamp) plot to detonate a nuclear bomb in Los Angeles.
The key to the movie’s success, which starts with Carell, is that everything is played entirely straight. It takes itself seriously as an action movie; it is as if no one knows it is a comedy. Add to that a funny script, written by Tom J. Astle and Matt Ember (Failure to Launch), and a comic actor as gifted as Carell, and the results are almost guaranteed to be golden.
Carell is deadly serious in his portrayal of Max, employing the deadpan delivery he perfected as a correspondent for The Daily Show and on The Office. At the same time, physical gags call on a broader comedic style and mesh surprisingly well with Carell’s brand of dry humor. It’s a perfect vehicle for his talents and certainly a better fit than Evan Almighty, his last attempt at opening a big summer movie.
Hathaway, in the Barbara Feldon role, holds her own next to Carell, though 99’s attraction to Max develops rather abruptly. (Fortunately, an adequate explanation is given for the 20-year age difference between the two actors.)
The supporting cast also includes David Koechner, who seems to find his way into almost everything Carell does, and Terry Crews as two cocky field agents relegated to office duty; Masi Oka (Heroes) and Nate Torrence as the geeks who supply Max with high-tech gadgets; James Caan as the incompetent U.S. president; and Geoff Pierson as the maniacal vice president. Also, watch for cameos by Bill Murray, Larry Miller and Kevin Nealon.
This is not the first film version of Get Smart. There was The Nude Bomb in 1980 and the TV movie Get Smart, Again! in 1989. It also had a brief revival in 1995 as a FOX TV series, with Andy Dick as the field agent son of Maxwell Smart, who had been promoted to CONTROL chief. The reason? It has a wonderful comedic premise, providing an appealing template with which to work.
This latest adaptation truly is a movie for the whole family. Anyone familiar with the TV show should recognize it instantly as Get Smart. They’ll see familiar gadgets (the shoe phone makes a dramatic appearance) and hear catchphrases (“Missed it by THAT much”) that are funny even if you are seeing and hearing them for the first time.
The director is Peter Segal (Anger Management), whose juggling of action and comedy is no small feat. Carell has said repeatedly in interviews that the goal was to make a “comedic Bourne Identity,” and that description is fairly accurate. This is not the kind of movie you will see on year-end top-10 lists, but I am hard pressed to think of the last film of its kind that worked so effectively.
(Rated PG-13 for some rude humor, action violence and language. 110 minutes.)