HOLLYWOOD — “Get Smart,” which began its life on TV as a classic sitcom that cleverly satirized Cold War espionage, has been transformed for the big screen into just another standard action picture.
Pity, too. Because Agent Maxwell Smart himself would have made a more entertaining movie, just by picking up a camera and bumbling his way through it.
You certainly can’t complain about the casting of Steve Carell in the lead role: What other actor has the buttoned-down looks and self-deprecating sense of humor to fill Don Adams’ shoe phone?
And director Peter Segal (“Anger Management,” “50 First Dates”), working with writers Tom J. Astle and Matt Ember, retains just enough elements of the 1960s TV series to tug at baby boomers’ sense of nostalgia. Max marches through a series of steel doors and drops through a phone booth to reach CONTROL’s underground headquarters; while on the job, he utters a few of those favorite lines like, “Would you believe ... ? and “Missed it by that much.”
But tonally, that’s where the similarities end.
Carell’s Smart is a good guy — hardworking, earnest, desperate to prove he’s ready to be promoted from behind the desk as an analyst to the challenges of working as a field agent. While it’s true that doing a dead-on impression of Adams would have seemed campy and fallen flat, this characterization misses the point, too. The combination of self-seriousness and ineptitude is what made Maxwell Smart a comic icon. No one involved with this movie seems to get that.
In this screen version, Smart and the glamorous, capable Agent 99 (Anne Hathaway, kicking far more butt than Barbara Feldon ever could have imagined) find themselves in a series of increasingly elaborate, explosive scenarios (hanging from a plane, being dragged behind a speeding SUV, dodging a train). It all plays out in big, loud, obvious fashion — as if the filmmakers figured the audience wouldn’t be interested in the sort of sly absurdity that gave the show its original charm.
Among the wasted supporting cast are Alan Arkin as the exasperated Chief, Terence Stamp as the evil head of the rival spy agency KAOS and Bill Murray in one painfully unfunny scene. Dwayne Johnson swaggers and flashes those blindingly pearly whites of his as the studly Agent 23, with Masi Oka and Nate Torrence grabbing a couple of laughs as a pair of put-upon CONTROL tech geeks.
As for the plot, it feels like an afterthought, something cobbled together once all the pratfalls and sight gags were lined up. (Again, several of the bad guys are Russians, but their villainy lacks the sort of relevance it had 40 years ago.) An attack on CONTROL exposes all the secret agents’ identities, leaving Max and 99 as the only ones left to go after the rival spy agency KAOS and undermine their nuclear plot.
This requires Max to harpoon himself repeatedly in the face with one of his gadgets, then fall out of a plane without a parachute. Later, he’s at the center of jokes involving urine, vomit and his own bare backside.
In case all that failed to wow the crowds, and it probably will, “Get Smart” wedges in a totally needless romance between Max and Agent 99. Again, part of the allure of the TV show was the banter, the tension between the two, the way they teased and cajoled each other but always managed to get the job done, somehow. The 20-year age difference between Carell and Hathaway is a bit of a distraction, but fundamentally, they just don’t have enough chemistry to suggest that falling for each other would be inevitable.
Besides, Agents 86 and 99? It just doesn’t add up.
“Get Smart,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release, is rated PG-13 for some rude humor, action violence and language. Running time: 111 minutes. One and a half stars out of four.
Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:
G — General audiences. All ages admitted.
PG — Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
PG-13 — Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.
R — Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
NC-17 — No one under 17 admitted.