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Get Smart   B-

Warner Bros. Pictures / Village Roadshow Pictures

Year Released: 2008
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Peter Segal
Writers: Tom J. Astle, Matt Ember
Cast: Steve Carell, Anne Hathaway, Dwayne Johnson, Alan Arkin, Terence Stamp, Ken Davitian.

Review by Rob Vaux

Get Smart occupies a perfect no man's land between watchable and forgettable. It is neither good enough to demand one's attention nor bad enough to really dislike. It offers congenial amusement for about an hour and a half of its overly long running time, but its faded spy spoof can't quite get in sync with the post-Cold War world. And yet jumping all over it serves no real purpose, for while it's hardly great art, it's certainly never disagreeable. And in the land of bad comedies -- which this summer truly seems to be -- its serviceable workmanship reigns supreme.

Normally, I'd be inclined to give such a movie a slightly lower grade, but this one has a few modest assets which finally push it into the win column:

  • It has a joke about existentialism.
  • It gives fat girls their moment in the sun.
  • It understands the value of a good Swiss army knife.
  • It lets Alan Arkin beat the crap out of several people.
  • It reminds us that Anne Hathaway looks really, really good in black.
Beyond that, it has Steve Carell reprising the role that the late Don Adams made famous: bumbling secret agent Maxwell Smart. While no one will mistake his performance for a masterpiece of subtlety, it does contain some surprising nuances that help the movie find its footing. Adams' Smart was one of the most compulsively imitable figures in pop culture, with his broad delivery and "would you believe..." catch phrases. A lot of comics would have relied solely on the mannerisms and mugging to sell it all. Carell takes the time to craft a legitimate character out of all that without losing the needed sense of buffoonery. His Smart works as an analyst for the ultra-secret secret service agency CONTROL, preparing intricately detailed reports chock full of vital knowledge that no one actually reads. For all his good work, he longs to go out into the field and stick it to international criminal conspiracy KAOS like Agent 23 (Dwayne Johnson, having a ball as usual). But when CONTROL headquarters is breached, KAOS learns the identity of every undercover operative in the agency. That leaves 23 parked behind a desk and Smart -- along with recent plastic surgery recipient Agent 99 (Hathaway) -- to save the world themselves.

Smart, of course, has no practical experience, and much of the movie hinges on his inept efforts to appear suave and/or operate CONTROL's various cool spy gadgets. Carell is up for the job and though predictable, his shtick pretty much holds water. The fact that he plays Smart as a kind-of-actual-real-person improves things considerably, letting us connect with him in ways that go beyond the nightclub routine. Unfortunately, that leaves Hathaway in the comparatively thankless role of straight gal. She has a few traces of personality (and her resemblance to original 99 Barbara Feldon is eerie at times), but she's basically there to kick the bad guy's asses and provide a hyper-competent mirror to Smart's well-meaning pratfalls. She acquits her duties decently enough, helped by some chemistry-laced bickering with Carell, but you get the sense that she could be a lot funnier if the script would only let her.

The evil scheme they hope to stop is strictly by-the-numbers, involving KAOS agent Siegfried (Terence Stamp, phoning it in) and a plan to blow up Los Angeles or something. Its boilerplate nature serves mainly as a launching point for the jokes, comparatively few of which are ever knocked out of the park. But they're steady and amusing, though marked by occasional unwelcome dips into pandering toilet humor. The film's real trump card is a fondness for the old show (the picture is dedicated to Adams), embodied not only by Carell but by director Peter Segal, whose work I have been less than thrilled with in the past. Get Smart lacks the mean-spirited tone of some of his earlier movies, and its core sweetness provides further reason to overlook the fact that nobody will remember it a year from now. It may not be anyone's first choice, but if you have nowhere else to turn, it can hold the line until better things arrive. Agent 86 would definitely approve.

Review published 06.23.2008.

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