Get Smart (2008): Misfire Version of Iconic TV Show, Starring Carell, Hathaway, and Dwayne Johnson

In theory, all the ingredients for a smart, stylish big-screen version of Get Smart, the iconic TV show of the 1960s, are in place.
There’s a likeable well cast star, Steve Carell; a director, Peter Segal, who loves and knows the source material; a sexy leading lady, Anne Hathaway; and plenty of gadgets, old and new. Yet something is missing to make the movie really work–a truly fresh angle, a contemporary irreverent tone, a plot!

Admittedly, a considerable challenge was involved in linking the comedic and the action elements with precision and style, as the Mel Brooks-Buck Henry series was very much a product of its times, reflecting the zeitgeist of the Cold War and Vietnam. But how do you translate that into an entertaining fare that will appeal to the show’s fans as well as to new audiences

Carell is such a self-effacing and charming comedian that for a while you give the project the benefit of doubt–sort of let’s see what he can do with the role of Maxwell Smart, the earnest, dedicated spy who’s good at what he does but wants desperately to prove himself in the field.

When the story begins, Max is hard at work deciphering suspicious international chatter from surveillance tapes, preparing voluminous reports for his peers at CONTROL, the mysterious U.S. espionage agency. He is such a valuable analyst that his boss, the Chief (Alan Arkin), is unable to offer the one thing Max wants the most and for which he’s been training diligently, to become a fully-fledged field agent.

The screenwriters Tom Astle and Matt Ember have tailored the yarn to fit Carell’s particular comedic talent, albeit with varying degrees of success. By presenting Max as a newly minted agent whose abilities haven’t yet been tested, Carell begins from a different place than the series star, Don Adams. Carell should be commended for avoiding impersonation or imitation of Adams, but he is too endearing, too accommodating. He interprets Max as a resourceful, capable guy with principles he’s willing to fight for, a man who doesn’t take the conventional route his peers might have taken but still manages to come out on top.

The scripters have penned an “origin” story that recounts how Max Smart became the man that he is, eager, sincere, and efficient analyst. Longing to to run, fight and shoot, he passes the agent’s exam with flying colors. But as the Chief tells him he’s too valuable where he is, which means he’s doomed to stay indoors and do deskwork, prepare boring reports for Agent 23 (Dwayne Johnson), the macho agent who’s out there.

Turning point occurs when KAOS, CONTROL’s nemesis, led by the evil Siegfried (Brit Terence Stamp), attacks the agency’s headquarters and exposes the identities of its key operatives, and Max finally gets his fantasy promotion. The Chief upgrades his status to Agent 86 and he’s partnered-by default–with Agent 99 (Anne Hathaway), the only top operative whose identity was not compromised by the recent breach.

While the Chief, Agent 23, and the villain are functionally drawn, the characterizations of Max and Agent 99 are more problematic. Ultimately, Carell (who’s also credited as exec-producer) looks right but doesn’t sound right, due to the scenario and characterization.

In tune with the times, Agent 99 was played by Barbara Feldon as the epitome of a liberated woman. But in the new version she has become more independent. In the press notes, Hathaway reveals the dilemmas in constructing her role” “Feldon was a girl who could keep up with the boys, but now 99 sets the pace, without sacrificing her femininity. She revels in being a woman who can run and fight in high heels and still be obsessed with Channel (a carryover from the serial). However, in this tale, while 99 is more capable and experienced than Max, she isn’t doing anything that would really threaten her male partner’s ego.

The relationship between Max and 99 begins well, with healthy competitions and arguments-99 resents that she has to work with a rookie, and puts him to test, demanding that he proves himself. But gradually the interaction becomes more formulaic, following the patterns of romantic comedy and lacking the edgy and irreverent spirit that shaped it in the original series.

Even so, there is fun to be had. “Get Smart” will not qualify as a genuine spy saga without suave, attention-grabbing gadgets. Among other things, the TV show was famous for its devices, and the new film pays homage to certain old-school props, while introducing a several equally improbable gizmos to help Max meet the postmodern challenges of surveillance, communication and destruction.

Like kids with toys, there’s always rivalry among the field agents when gadgets are concerned, each trying to outdo his/her colleagues with the latest-and-greatest, before casually dropping the nasty remark, “What You don’t have this” Soon after Max demonstrates his radiation-detector wristwatch, Agent 99 coolly reveals a roll of explosive dental floss. And following 99’s introduction of a molar-mounted radio, Max breaks out the cufflink bombs.

In a world defined by CONTROL and KAOS, you never know if a pen is just a pen, or possibly also a dart gun. Phone booths become elevators, and there are convoluted passwords and secret codes that would even impress James Bond, because they pop up when and where you least expect them to.

Taking off your shoe and putting it to your ear to take a call doesn’t seem innovative today, but back in the 1960s it was an amazing concept well ahead of its time. Hence, the shoe phone makes an obligatory appearance and so does the Cone of Silence, which is now completely digital with sophisticated hand-held activation system and multiple ports, as well as cutting-edge equipment that spies like Max and Agent 99 would use. Several distinctive sports cars from the series make drive-on cameos, and fans will be able to spot the red Sunbeam Tiger, the gold Opel GT, and the blue Karmann Ghia.

Other debuting items from CONTROL’s crime-fighting arsenal are a pocket compact smokescreen and Max’s specially equipped Swiss Army knife that includes beyond its standard attachments a flamethrower, a blowgun, and a miniature titanium-threaded grappling hook. In bringing “Get Smart” to the big screen, incorporating familiar favorites, while propelling spy gadgetry into the new century is the kind of balance Segal and his team achieve technically, but not narratively or tonally.

Location shooting helps, and a nocturnal sequence in Moscow’s Red Square is pleasing enough as divertissement, but undoubtedly, the movie’s pivotal action, the piece de resistance, is a funny set piece that involves helicopter, tractor, gold clubs, train, people hanging from an airplane bannerand swordfish!

In such moments, Segal shows ability to blend smart comedy with more “serious” action, display physical humor against a more realistic backdrop. But, overall, the dual goal to embrace the spirit of the Brooks and Henry show and yet create something fresh for a new generation is only partially met. The filmmakers are caught in a no-win situation. On the one hand, they wish to pay homage to the touchstones of the series, its irreverent political satire, the catchphrases that are now part of pop culture, and on the other, they aim at doing it with a contemporary point of view, modish style, increased tension and energy.

Occasionally, the movie gets nostalgic and winks at the show, as evident in Max’s musical marches through the many security gates, which, as most of you know, used to introduce the Brooks-Henry series. However, darker humor is missing in the transfer from the small to the big screen. Despite affection for the TV show, “Get Smart” has discarded crucial elements that had defined is uniqueness, without replacing them with many new, relevant, or witty ideas.

End Note

The TV production team was approached by the FBI in the series’ heyday with questions about the show’s fantastic devices. Apparently, some of the creations were so realistic that it was unnerving to them to think that Hollywood comedy writers could just dream this stuff up. Moreover, the shoe phone has become such an icon of pop culture that it was recently on display as part of the Treasures of Hollywood exhibit at the International Spy Museum in Washington DC.

Cast

Maxwell Smart – Steve Carell
Agent 99 – Anne Hathaway
Agent 23 – Dwayne Johnson
Chief – Alan Arkin
Siegfried – Terence Stamp
Shtarker – Ken Davitian

Credits

A Warner release, presented in association with Village Roadshow Pictures, of a Mosaic Media Group/Mad Chance/Callahan Filmworks production. Produced by Andrew Lazar, Charles Roven, Alex Gartner, Michael Ewing.
Executive producers, Peter Segal, Steve Carell, Brent O’Connor, Jimmy Miller, Dana Goldberg, Bruce Berman.
Co-producer, Alan G. Glazer.
Directed by Peter Segal.
Screenplay, Tom J. Astle, Matt Ember, based on characters created by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry.
Camera: Dean Semler.
Editor: Richard Pearson
Music: Trevor Rabin.
Production designer: Wynn Thomas.
Supervising art director: James Hegedus.
Set decorator: Leslie E. Rollins.
Costume designer: Deborah Scott.
Sound: Jose Antonio Garcia.
Sound editors: Sandy Berman, Steve Mann, Jeff Sawyer.
Visual effects supervisor: Joe Bauer.
Special effects coordinator: Michael Lantieri.
Choreographer: Jamal Sims.

MPAA Rating: PG-13.
Running time: 110 Minutes.