Would you believe... just OK?
The film remake of Get Smart misses the TV series' kooky charm
The 1960s birthed not only the first wave of James Bond mania but also a litter of spy parodies, from the all-out Bond movie spoof Casino Royale (1967) to the more modest (and much funnier) TV series Get Smart. Broadcast on NBC from 1965 to 1969 (and on CBS for a final season in 1969-70), the show starred the inimitable Don Adams as Maxwell Smart, an accident-prone secret agent equipped with a battery of outlandish gadgets – including his trusty shoe phone – and a pocketful of catch phrases ("Would you believe…?"; "Missed it by that much"; and his oft-repeated apology, "Sorry about that, Chief").
In its twin efforts to please fans of the original TV show and provide a more general action-comedy for the rest of the audience, Get Smart takes more pratfalls than its clumsy hero.
The shoe phone and the catch phrases turn up in the new Get Smart movie, along with the Cone of Silence and other beloved gizmos and gimmicks from the series. But director Peter Segal's intermittently funny homage is missing the wry performances and kooky charm of the original. In its twin efforts to please fans of the TV show and provide a more general action-comedy for the rest of the audience, the picture takes more pratfalls than its clumsy hero. Just when it gets close to catching the right zany spirit, it goes head over heels into a heap of generic gunfights, car chases and explosions.
The film’s star, Steve Carell, seems similarly torn — he can’t decide whether he’s embodying the Adams character or trying to make the role his own. Wisely, he avoids a direct Adams impersonation except when uttering those catch phrases (and then his attempts at Adams’s snappy delivery sound awkwardly self-conscious). But instead of building a new Max, Carell just re-purposes his Michael Scott character from The Office. Now, instead of acting like a pathetic idiot in front of his bemused Dunder Mifflin employees, he's acting like a pathetic idiot while trying to foil an international terrorist plot.
Aiming for some topical satire, screenwriters Tom J. Astle and Matt Ember have taken the ’60s TV characters – created by comic masterminds Mel Brooks and Buck Henry – and refurbished them for the present. They’ve also given Max a nebbish-makes-good backstory. Carell’s Smart is a crack translator for CONTROL, the top-secret U.S. espionage agency, which survived the Cold War and continues to battle its nefarious foreign rival, the shadowy KAOS. An aspiring agent and former overeater, Max has dropped his excess weight and aced the training exams but remains frustratingly stuck in his desk job. His iPod theme song is ABBA's Take a Chance on Me.
He finally gets that chance when KAOS infiltrates CONTROL and lays waste to most of its able-bodied spies while the others – including superstar Agent 23 (a swaggering Dwayne Johnson) – have their covers blown. The Chief (Alan Arkin) is forced to sideline 23 and send Max out into the field. Teamed with the sexy, super-competent Agent 99 (Anne Hathaway) – who comes fresh from identity-altering plastic surgery – the newly dubbed "Agent 86" sets off on a mission to thwart KAOS’s latest scheme.
Max and 99 need to stop KAOS’s second-in-command, the nasty Siegfried (Terence Stamp), who has been selling nuclear weapon-making material to unstable dictatorships. Their assignment involves tangling with crafty Russians, penetrating a secret, Dr. No-type facility and performing some Mission: Impossible-style acts of derring-do. Astle and Ember roast all the old chestnuts of the spy genre while keeping things timely with jokes about profiling, Homeland Security and — perhaps inevitable in a Get Smart update — a shoe-bomber gag.
The writing is uneven. Astle and Ember (who scripted the 2006 Matthew McConaughey romantic comedy Failure to Launch) will come up with something clever one minute, then revert to potty humour the next. Granted, they never get as crude as Mike Myers in his Austin Powers spoofs – but then, they never come close to the laugh-out-loud moments of those movies, either. The slapstick is better: there’s a scene in an airplane toilet involving Max and his hypertrophied Swiss Army knife (it contains, among other things, a flame thrower and a mini-crossbow) that’s painfully hilarious. But Berg, whose last movie was the remake of The Longest Yard, is one of those directors who thinks more violence means more laughs. It’s not enough for Max to catch his nose in some sliding doors, à la the TV show – he has to have his whole body virtually crushed by them.
One of the delights of the series was Max’s interplay with 99 – Barbara Feldon was always amusingly tolerant of her partner’s bungling. The lithe, doe-eyed Hathaway is as hot as the young Feldon – at one point, Hathaway even dons a bobbed wig to highlight the physical resemblance – but her 99 is cranky and egotistical. Carell’s Max has to win her over, but they never establish a convincing rapport. The indefatigable Alan Arkin has much more fun with his take on the Chief, Max’s long-suffering boss (played on TV by character actor Edward Platt, the sympathetic cop from Rebel Without a Cause). Arkin turns the guy into a scrappy veteran spy who at one point even mixes it up, Strangelove -style, in the "war room." Half the time when he's onscreen, Arkin looks like he’s struggling to keep a straight face; you keep waiting for him to do aHarvey Korman and break out laughing.
Too bad he didn’t pass his good-humoured attitude to Stamp, whose cruelly sarcastic Siegfried is less playful than your average Bond villain. Mind you, he does have an amiable sidekick in burly Ken Davitian, Borat’s Sancho Panza – thankfully keeping his clothes on for this film. The cast is crammed with such familiar faces, from James Caan, as a Bush-like president, to brief appearances by, among others, Bill Murray, Kevin Nealon, Seinfeld’s Patrick Warburton and the original Siegfried, Bernie Kopell.
As Kopell’s cameo suggests, the filmmakers regard their source material with affection. The script even contrives to bring back Max’s car, a red 1965 Sunbeam Tiger, and composer Trevor Rabin’s score lovingly embraces (and amplifies) Irving Szathmary’s hummable TV theme. But while their hearts are in the right place, they fail to replicate the innocent nuttiness that makes the old Get Smart reruns as entertaining now as they were in the '60s. (Not even Adams himself was able to recapture the magic in the 1980 Get Smart feature film, the aptly titled The Nude Bomb.) Let’s face it: Get Smart is one of those concoctions of a bygone time with a unique chemistry that simply can’t be duplicated. Imagine how ridiculous it will be if, 40 years from now, someone tries to make a feature film of Seinfeld or 30 Rock.
Get Smart opens across Canada on June 20.
Martin Morrow writes about the arts for CBCNews.ca.