Get Smart hits so many wrong comedic notes it’s as if it’s playing the piano in boxing gloves.
A few minutes into the movie, when (a version of) that briskly sinister title theme kicks in and Maxwell Smart heads for the sliding doors you’ll be happily ensconced, thinking: why mess with the classics? But shredding a classic is exactly what the filmmakers set about doing.
The latest big-screen adaptation of the 1960s TV spy comedy, originally conceived as a mashup of James Bond and Inspector Clouseau, completely misunderstands Maxwell Smart (Steve Carell), who in the original was arrogant but childlike, incompetent but unerring. He would say something utterly absurd with ironclad bravado and a stone face, then turn out to be right.
The new Smart is just a whiny nerd who is constantly being beaten down, often by his partner Agent 99 (a brittle and sarcastic Anne Hathaway, who will make you long for the airy adorableness of Barbara Feldon). In their first encounter, 99 literally knocks Max down on the sidewalk, like a middle linebacker.
Carell seems at a loss for ideas. He can’t imitate Don Adams, who played the original role with such dapper daffiness and got many of his laughs just by speaking in an officious quack (modeled after William Powell’s in The Thin Man). Carell doesn’t do much of anything except project a general air of frustration and weakness. When called upon to issue the series’ signature catchphrases (“Would you believe…,” “Missed it by that much,” “Sorry about that, Chief”) he sounds sheepish, except on one occasion midway through, which was the only time in the entire movie that I laughed.
Chasing some stolen nukes in Russia (the chief villain is Terence Stamp, aka General Zod in Superman II), Max and 99 go on a series of adventures that aren’t so much parodies of other movies as blurry copies. There’s a midair parachute chase like the one in Moonraker, starring a hulking actor who looks exactly like the guy who played the steel-jawed assassin in that film. There’s also an interlocking-laser-beam field like the one in Entrapment and a dance scene at a black-tie party a la True Lies. Instead of parodying these scenes, director Peter Segal (50 First Dates) simply restages them with some cheap har-har element. Example: when Max dances, it’s with a really fat girl. (There are also three different scenes during which we’re supposed to laugh for no other reason except that Carell is shown in flashback in a fat suit.) Perhaps the worst idea was stealing an idea from the men’s room scene in Austin Powers, which only serves to highlight how much zanier and more original that spoof was.
The script roams desperately around a large ensemble of unnecessary characters in search of a laugh (Masi Oka, of NBC’s “Heroes,” and Nate Torrence, a sort of Jonah Hill clone play two superfluous young nerds who keep dropping in to clog up the movie). It turns out they are on hand solely to prop up interest in a spinoff movie that is being concurrently released on DVD.
Only in scattered moments is the satiric silliness of the original Get Smart even visible, such as when Smart asks the new character Agent 23 (the Rock), “How was the assassination?” or when Smart meets an agent who is stationed inside a tree. That guy — the sap? — is played by Bill Murray, but instead of playing it straight while discussing the next mission he whines about being stuck in a tree, which ruins the joke.
One key to TV’s Get Smart was that it was deadpan — the characters never knew they were being funny. But the film is full of joshing that’s so witless it sounds like the dull banter of actual locker-room meatheads: fellow agents call Max “Maxi-pad” and “Maxine.” After a mishap at a bakery, Smart and his fellow spies are derided as “the fabulous bakery boys.” The whole movie is as strange and clunky as that attempted joke. To put it another way, this is the Aughties equivalent of the unspeakable Tom Hanks/Dan Aykroyd version of Dragnet. The characters cringe at their own failure to be funny, and so do we. As Max tells 99, “Not much of a laugher, are you?”
Correction: A previous version of this piece incorrectly stated that Rob Corddry was in Get Smart.
Directed by Peter Segal
Starring: Steve Carrell, Anne Hathaway, Dwayne Johnson, Bill Murray
1 star/ 4
111 minutes/Rated PG-13