Don Adams will always be Maxwell Smart, Agent 86, from the classic, subversive, and sarcastic 1960’s television series, Get Smart. I grew up watching the television series in reruns in the 1970s. It would be much later realized that the show was a clever satire written by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry. I would expect nothing less from these two comic heavyweights. The show was a response to the intelligence craze in pop culture at the time when James Bond dominated the landscape. There were plenty of spoofs to go around such as the Matt Helm films starring Dean Martin, the Derek Flint films starring James Coburn, and of course, the ultimate James Bond spoof, the original 1967 Casino Royale. Think of these films as the Austin Powers of their day– Mike Myers was deeply influenced by Casino Royale. Henry and Brooks created a television series which was a response to the intelligence blunders of their times — specifically, the Vietnam War. The other great benefit of the show was the wonderful cast featuring Don Adams, Barbara Feldon, and Edward Platt. They worked very well together. The show holds up remarkably well.
The casting of Peter Segal‘s Get Smart film is the secret of its success. Steve Carell, as Maxwell Smart, is inspired casting. He simply works as Agent 86. I believe it works so well because he is not imitating Don Adams; he is giving the character a different tone.
It is safe to say that Get Smart does not have much of the sarcasm that came with the original series. I think Get Smart purists may be put off by how good natured this film is as compared to the television series. In fact, when the film attempts to make some political commentary or take a swipe at current events, it fails miserably. The film’s script may be the weakest link.
The strongest link is the great chemistry between Steve Carell and Anne Hathaway’s Agent 99. Her relationship to Carell’s Smart is reminiscent to Elizabeth Hurley’s Vanessa Kensington to Mike Myers’ Austin Powers in the first Austin Powers film and of Natalie Imbruglia’s Lorna Campbell to Rowan Atkinson’s Johnny English from Johnny English.
Speaking of Agent 99, Anne Hathaway is actually pretty good as the iconic agent. This is her best performance since The Devil Wears Prada. Her scenes with Carell are a revelation. Here is the thing: neither of the leads is playing by the book in regards to the television show. It was very clear that Don Adams was playing a parody of a character and it worked damn well for a sitcom. I would say that sarcastic parody worked for only so long in The Nude Bomb. Barbara Feldon’s Agent 99 was missing in The Nude Bomb and that made a world of difference. It was Adams and Feldon’s chemistry that sealed the deal.
By the third go around, Mike Myers could not keep the Austin Powers as fresh as it once was. Although something tells me that if Peter Sellers had lived, he and Herbert Lom could have kept the insanity of the Pink Panther films going for several more years. To make a feature film, it helps to have Steve Carell playing Maxwell Smart. Carell has earned the goodwill of audiences for several years now. His performances in Anchorman: The Legend Of Ron Burgundy, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Little Miss Sunshine, Dan In Real Life, his role as Michael Scott on the television series, The Office, and his stint on The Daily Show have given us a chance to watch him grow as a performer. I am not saying that Get Smart is a career-defining performance or his greatest role ever. Another actor would attempt to copy Don Adams and just do a straight on impersonation. Not Carell; he gives the character his own brand of neurosis and irony. Carell is so likable as Maxwell Smart. We are rooting for him the whole time whether he is saving the world or doing his best to win the heart of Agent 99. The film is at its strongest when it does not feel the need to indulge in the original series.
While Steve Carell and Anne Hathaway are great in their roles, the script is not the strongest it could have been. No one expects Matt Ember and Tom J. Astle to write anything as clever as Buck Henry and Mel Brooks did back in their days. The film’s structure resembles a low tension version of True Lies with shades of 1987’s Dragnet and Foul Play thrown in for good measure. The film has more action than I expected — like McG’s Charlie’s Angels films, but not as chaotic. Astle and Ember have done a lot of television work as well as Failure To Launch.
The story begins as Maxwell Smart is an analyst for CONTROL, but he yearns to be a field agent like Dwayne Johnson‘s Agent 23 — a very by-the-book agent who gets things done and does not appreciate any breaches of protocol. Maxwell has taken the field agent’s exam several times, but he has not passed. When he finally does pass, the Chief, played with the perfect amount of wisdom, humor, and compassion by Alan Arkin, will not promote him because he is best analyst the agency has in its possession. Smart is so thorough in his papers and presentations; he has a reputation for putting people to sleep at meetings. Things change, KAOS, once thought to be defunct, is back in the game and is in the nuclear weapons stockpiling business. They have penetrated CONTROL’s agent database and agents are being assassinated all over the world. Smart has to be promoted and is partnered with Agent 99. Maxwell will be learning on the job and trying to woo Agent 99 while trying to save the world. Representing KAOS is Terence Stamp as Siegfried and Borat’s Ken Davitian. Sadly, Stamp is not given much to do. The classic Stamp vocalizations are there, but he just does not have much of a part. The same can be said for James Caan as a thinly veiled President George W. Bush. Siegfried wants to demonstrate the power of their nuclear arsenal by nuking Los Angeles while the President is attending a concert at the Disney Theater.
There are a host of supporting performances in the film that are worthy of merit. David Koechner and Terry Crews are very funny as the bullying agents at CONTROL and it is good to see Koechner and his fellow Anchorman alumni Carell working together again. Bill Murray, Kevin Nealon, Larry Miller, and Patrick Warburton have amusing cameos in the film. Murrays’ cameo seemed to be a nice touch given his role in The Man Who Knew Too Little. I appreciated Bernie Kopell’s (the original Siegfried) cameo in the film as well.
I am beginning to wonder if there is anything Dwayne Johnson cannot do, he has a great comedic presence. He is a very welcomed asset in this film; maybe the film’s greatest resource is Alan Arkin as the Chief. He plays the part just right. Alan Arkin has managed to stay fresh and relevant for his entire career. I first saw him in The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming as a young boy. He has a knack for going from drama to comedy with great ease. He has done Wait Until Dark and The In-Laws in one lifetime. John Cusack has that ability too. Arkin’s resume is very impressive. He played Captain John Yossarian in Catch-22 — you do not have to play any other character ever again if you do that one justice. Yet, he has and keeps going on strong. As the Chief, he looks like he is having a great time with the part. It is great to see him in action.
The greatest irony of Get Smart is that it works best when it is not paying homage to the series. That is a first. Peter Segal has a certain style to his more enjoyable comedies like The Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult, Tommy Boy, My Fellow Americans, and Anger Management. They are pleasant diversions — the kinds of films that you watch on cable on a rainy day.
When the film does incorporate some of the iconic things from the series, it feels forced and oddly out of place. Get Smart is a mild summertime diversion. The film is so good natured that it is hard to have a problem with it for long. The film has some lavish action sequences that at times reminded me more of action films than other comedies — for this type of film, a nice bonus.
The film is not as much as a spy spoof as the original series or recent films like the Austin Powers films and Johnny English. And while Peter Segal did direct the last Naked Gun film, the film’s tone is more in line with his My Fellow Americans — another good natured comedy that benefited strongly from James Garner and Jack Lemmon. Get Smart works tremendously better than the hideous remake of The Pink Panther with Steve Martin or the I Spy film with Eddie Murphy and Owen Wilson. Get Smart is a decent and enjoyable action comedy for the summer, but the television show was in a class by itself.