As is the case with many remakes, the newly released Get Smart, starring Steve Carell as Maxwell Smart and Anne Hathaway as Agent 99, works better the less you know about the original series, which was created by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry in 1965 and which enjoyed a five-year run on CBS. Even on its own terms, the current release suffers both from the lack of restraint of its director, Peter Segal, and from the lack of focus — in plot and character definition — of its writing team of Tom J. Astle and Matt Ember. Yet, for a summer film, it delivers a lot of laughs — far more than the trailer would lead you to expect.
The film is clearly inferior to the original series starring the duo of Don Adams and Barbara Feldon, but it is more entertaining than Fox’s 1995 revival with Adams (now chief of CONTROL) and Feldon (now a Congresswoman) teaming up again. That series focused less on the aging stars than on Andy Dick as the Smarts’ son Zack, whose zany physical humor was the show’s centerpiece. There was also a forgettable TV reunion movie Get Smart Again in 1989.
Those productions at least had the advantage of featuring the stars from the original series. Without Adams and Feldon, the new release is trapped between two opposing tendencies: imitating and updating. Many of the staples of the series are present here: the musical theme, the series of electronic doors closing as Max passes through them, the shoe phone, the cone of silence, and the red Sunbeam Tiger convertible. There are also many new gadgets. The writers make only selective use of Max’s trademark lines — “Missed by that
much.” and “Would you believe . . . ?” — although there is a funny use of the latter that concludes, “Would you believe Chuck Norris with a BB gun?”
At the outset of the film, Max is a frustrated analyst working for the U.S. espionage agency CONTROL. As he churns out endlessly detailed intelligence reports to be used by the likes of the slick Agent 23 (Dwayne Johnson), he dreams of becoming a field agent himself. His sense of failure is evident in an early scene in which he is repeatedly bumped as he stands on a street corner. He wonders aloud, “Do I even exist?” He begs CONTROL’s chief (played effectively by Alan Arkin) to promote him, but the chief insists that he’s too valuable as an analyst.
Smart’s fortune changes when CONTROL suffers a devastating attack. Lacking manpower, the Chief makes Max’s longstanding dream come true. He is promoted to agent and teams with the more experienced 99 to investigate KAOS and its plot to harm the United States through the use of nuclear weapons smuggled out of the old U.S.S.R. As for the KAOS villains, Siegfrid (Terence Stamp) is utterly undeveloped, while his assistant, Shtarker (Ken Davitian), gets off some of the funniest lines in the film.
Carell wisely avoids trying to mimic Adams, using his own deadpan style and physical humor to good effect here. He is particularly impressive in an impromptu dance contest in which he and a less-than-likely partner compete against 99 and her elegant partner. He manages, if only momentarily, to bring her down a notch. The biggest change from the original series is in the character of 99; as Hathaway has said of her version, 99 “sets the pace” among the boys, whereas Feldon’s 99 merely kept up.
But Hathaway’s performance is flat throughout and, in the most noticeable difference from her predecessor, her character is not all that likeable. Physically quite attractive, if a bit too made up, she lacks Feldon’s charm and femininity. That the new 99 responds gruffly to an accusation concerning her femininity only underscores the point. In a nearly perfect inversion of Feldon, Hathaway combines the model of the hyper-sophisticated careerist woman with a teeny-bopper quality in the arena of romance.
As I say, the film is a good bit of fun, with a lot more humor than was expected. But, for those who recall the original series, it is yet another sign of the decline of decent writing in Hollywood and of the concomitant loss of any appreciation of subtle irony. It is a sad sign for Hollywood that, even as it keeps mining the world of TV sit-coms in its desperate search for source material, it must count on the general cultural ignorance of viewers for success.
– Thomas S. Hibbs is distinguished professor of ethics and culture at Baylor University and author of Arts of Darkness.