The slick new version of the dusty 1960s television comedy “Get Smart” is one of the better TV adaptations to come along in recent years. It’s faithful to the original without being overly reverential, it modernizes the premise without mocking it, and you can fully enjoy it even if you’ve never seen the TV series. Oh, and best of all — it’s funny.
Steve Carell deserves much of the credit for that, easily rebounding from the dubious “Evan Almighty” (which I thought was OK, thanks to him) and reminding us of the 40-year-old virgin we fell in love with. Carell is a master with awkward, inept characters (as he demonstrates week after week on “The Office”), and Maxwell Smart proves to be a perfect fit for his skills. Or maybe he’s just so good that he can make ANY character seem like it was tailor-made for him.
Maxwell Smart, as you may know from the shticky old show created by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry, is an agent for CONTROL, a secret government organization that’s even more under-the-radar than the CIA. The public was told that CONTROL was disbanded when the Cold War ended, but it continues to operate secretly in the customary underground facilities. (Washington D.C. would have to be completely hollow to house all the various fictional government groups whose headquarters are under its streets.)
Max is an analyst, an expert at gleaning important details from seemingly innocuous conversations that are picked up by CONTROL surveillance. He longs to be a field agent, though, and that dream is fulfilled when CONTROL’s agents’ identities are compromised and the chief (Alan Arkin) must send out someone unrecognizable to defeat the evil KAOS.
As the newly dubbed Agent 86, Max is partnered with Agent 99 (Anne Hathaway), who is safe to use because she recently had plastic surgery that altered her appearance. (The film tries to use this to reduce the 20-year age difference between Hathaway and Carell — Agent 99 is actually older than she looks! — but I ain’t buyin’ it.) Where Max is bumbling and often oblivious, Agent 99 is whip-smart, highly skilled, and unwilling to put up with nonsense. Their mission? Track down Siegfried (Terence Stamp), the evil mastermind who has been obtaining nuclear materials and who no doubt has unsavory plans for them.
Anne Hathaway, who has gradually been developing her comedy chops over the years, surprised me with her complete mastery of the Agent 99 role, and in particular with her prowess as a foil for Carell. They are a far better comic pair than I would have imagined, with crisp timing and a believable wariness of one another. Less believable is the romance that inevitably develops between them; they’re a lot more plausible as platonic work buddies than as lovers.
What I particularly like about the screenplay (from Tom J. Astle and Matt Ember, the duo behind 2006’s “Failure to Launch”) is that Max is not rendered as an incompetent boob who occasionally stumbles into success, nor as a brilliant agent who outsmarts everyone. Instead, he’s a mixture of both. Not only is this less stereotypical — most films would make him one or the other — but it opens the doors for a lot of comic possibilities. Max screws up just often enough for us to feel some satisfaction when he gets it right. We can relate to him, as opposed to pitying or being in awe of him.
Considering the director, Peter Segal, also made “Tommy Boy,” “Nutty Professor II: The Klumps,” and “50 First Dates,” I think it’s safe to say that “Get Smart” is the most sophisticated work of his career. He indulges in a few cheap gags here and there — a vomit-based joke, and one where two guys are wrestling, and observers think it looks like they’re having sex (which it never does; I don’t know why filmmakers keep going back to that one) — but most of the sight gags are better than that. The cast, which also includes Dwayne Johnson, David Koechner, and Bill Murray (in a bizarre cameo) as CONTROL agents, and James Caan as a Bush-like U.S. president, is uniformly sharp, never over-the-top.
The “action” part of action comedies seldom makes much sense, and Siegfried’s plan is typically nonsensical. But as long as the “comedy” part works, it’s OK with me. Did I mention that Max recently lost 150 pounds, and there are flashbacks to his fat days? Heaven help me, but if there’s one thing funnier than Steve Carell, it’s a fat Steve Carell.
B+ (1 hr., 50 min.; )