by Hank Yuloff
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“Hopes high, expectations low” is often the best way to go into a movie based on a popular television program. There have been some good ones (Charlie’s Angels, Star Trek, The Addams Family) and some okay ones (Josie and the Pussycats, Miami Vice) and some bad ones (The Incredible Hulk, Car 54, Where Are You?, Dukes of Hazzard, Scooby Doo). With Get Smart, the much-hyped update of the 1960s TV series of the same name, I can only use the tagline that I am sure the producers hoped would not be used by every reviewer who ever watched an episode: “Missed it by that much.”
This version of the show moves us from the 1960s Cold War, where CONTROL was fighting to keep KAOS from taking over the world, to the present, where CONTROL has been demoted to non-official status, based below the Smithsonian. The CIA and Secret Service seem to take them as a joke. Maxwell Smart is played by Steve Carell (The 40 Year-Old Virgin, The Office). In this film, he is an analyst, not an agent, but due to a mishap, he is forced into a promotion. What is very striking here is that where the original Maxwell Smart was a bumbling boob, not knowing any of the intelligence and getting by with luck (and the help of ever-capable, sexy Agent 99), this version is a very smart, very motivated member of the team. This may also be where the movie goes astray. The very genius of Don Adams was his Agent 86 thinking he knew everything while we knew he did not know anything but him not knowing that we knew he knew nothing, while he didn’t know we knew that he still thought he knew everything.
In this story, KAOS wants $200 billion. Instead of just giving a massive campaign contribution to the Republican party, they decide to bribe the U.S. with “nucular” weapons in Los Angeles. It is up to Agents 86, 99 and 23 to bring the evil Siegfried to justice. Terence Stamp plays the evildoer but is as flat as the door that Agent 86 walks into at the beginning of every episode, and in this movie as well. Maybe I want Siegfried to still be a distinct East German instead of some nondescript Eurotrash. Ken Davitian does do a great job as henchman, Shtarker.
Laughs do abound in this film. But instead of Get Smart (emphasis added), this film could have just been a Secret-Agent-Saves-the-World film like Alias, where we count the jokes instead of hot outfits that Sydney Bristow (Jennifer Garner) wears. Speaking of Alias, I would have loved to have seen Victor Garber (Alias, Eli Stone) in the role of The Chief. Director Peter Segal (Fifty First Dates) even went for the old Bare-Ass-Shows-Through-the-Suit joke. That was the fifth time this century for that.
Yes, all of the catch phrases (“Would ya believe…”) and gadgets and enemies are in the movie. There are even some perfect cameos which salute the old show: Bill Murray even does a great short cameo of Agent 13, the doorkeeper who was always very undercover; Patrick Warburton (Rules of Engagement) shows up as Hymie the robot; and Bernie Kopell (the original Siegfried) does a quick walk-on.
But Anne Hathaway is not “Barbara Feldon sexy” as Agent 99 (not to take anything at all away from the very hot actress from The Devil Wears Prada), which really was a draw, and Alan Arkin (Little Miss Sunshine) is nowhere near the crusty Chief of CONTROL that Edward Platt played in the series. I am afraid that with these pale mirror images, and without Don Adams as the main character, this attempt to remake the perfection that was the original Mel Brooks creation misses it by…
Hank Yuloff is a film critic and co-founder of Film Monthly living in Los Angeles.
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