Sorry About That, Chief! Carell, Hathaway Can’t Hold a Shoe to Adams, Feldon

Get Smart
Running time 110 minutes
Written by Tom J. Astle and Matt Ember
Directed by Peter Segal
Starring Steve Carell, Anne Hathaway, Dwayne Johnson

Peter Segal’s Get Smart, from a screenplay by Tom J. Astle and Matt Ember, is based on a satiric television series with characters created by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry. In fact, Mr. Brooks and Mr. Henry are listed in the film’s credits as “consultants.” This leads one to wonder if the timely jabs at an anonymous Bush-like president and a Cheney-like vice president can be attributed at least partly to the Brooks-Henry team. Not that this elaborately produced extravaganza is anything less than a star vehicle for Steve Carell as CONTROL agent Maxwell Smart, who bumbled his way into saving America from the machinations of an unusually acquisitive terrorist organization, KAOS, led by a more Teutonic than Muslim opportunist named Siegfried and played by the agelessly talented Terence Stamp.

Agent Smart is not without skilled assistance in his antiterrorist activities, most conspicuously with Anne Hathaway as Agent 99, who has mastered all the martial arts and then some; Dwayne Johnson’s sleek Agent 23, whom Smart has always admired from afar; and Alan Arkin’s chief of CONTROL, a much smarter intelligence outfit than the disgraced onscreen (and off) C.I.A. Is this perhaps another suggestion from the Brooks-Henry cabal?

At the screening I attended, everyone seemed moderately amused by the results of all this timely paranoia, but I can’t say they were swept into gales of laughter. Too many of the action sequences were shot as real nail-biters with straight stuntman and stuntwoman numbers befitting a high-budget project with aspirations to high nine-figure worldwide grosses.

To justify re-creating a 40-plus-year-old small-screen hit into a big-screen-hit wannabe, Mr. Segal explains: “The show aired during the Cold War and Vietnam and reflected some of those concerns. We likewise took inspiration from today’s headlines. With the CIA, FBI, Homeland Security, and potentially more than a hundred similar agencies operating in the U.S. alone, the idea that underground organizations such as CONTROL and KAOS could exist doesn’t seem so far-fetched. There’s still a lot going on politically to satirize and skewer.”

Nonetheless, the narrative structure of the remade Get Smart does not slavishly follow the original in every detail. For one thing, Mr. Carell’s Maxwell Smart differs from the Don Adams incarnation as a full-fledged agent from day one of the series by having the screenplay track Mr. Carell’s Maxwell Smart back to his beginnings at a desk job as an analyst while yearning to be appointed a field agent.

Smart’s original female companion, Agent 99, played by the very ingratiating Barbara Feldon, is played in the remake by Ms. Hathaway, about whom opinions have differed ever since The Devil Wears Prada was completely stolen from her in 2006 by Meryl Streep. People who have seen her onstage marvel at her singing voice and physical presence. But I have yet to see these theatrical gifts transformed into the cinematic sparkle of which genuine movie stars are made. In this case, perhaps it was the monotonous deadpan discipline imposed on her by the director.

A new character added to the CONTROL Team is Mr. Johnson’s aforementioned Agent 23, a charismatic figure who provides a satisfying counterpoint to Mr. Carell’s overenthusiastic nerdiness.

Alan Arkin, the hyper-gifted Oscar-winning Second City alumnus, provides a seemingly effortless stability to the frenzied and farcical proceedings.

So my ill-informed forecast is that Get Smart should win its high-priced gamble at the box office. I say “ill-informed” because my track record in predicting the public’s response to the industry’s product is totally dismal. And this is particularly true in a period in which the most treasured demographic is that of the teenager, who is much too young to have seen Don Adams’ Maxwell Smart. All I can say personally is that I didn’t mind the movie, though many of its effects struck me as laboriously overproduced.

One irony that struck me vis-à-vis the two versions of Get Smart is that the current production has used Moscow’s Red Square as a prominent location. This would have been unthinkable in 1965, when Don Adams was doing his stuff on television in a Cold War context.

I was also mesmerized by competing dance teams played by Ms. Hathaway and KAOS operative Krstic (played by professional dancer David S. Lee) on one side and Mr. Carell and an unusually enormous dance partner on the other. The contest’s warmhearted ridiculousness is alone worth the price of admission, and applaud an actress named Lindsay Hollister for her performance that has has enabled Mr. Carell’s Maxwell Smart to display all his unembarrassed gallantry.

asarris@observer.com Sorry About That, Chief! Carell, Hathaway Can’t Hold a Shoe to Adams, Feldon