Get Smart (Warner Bros., PG-13)

film_get-smart_sm.jpgSince I was a fan of the TV series, I’m happy to report that Segal gets it almost right in this new film.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Making a movie from a beloved TV show is one of the riskiest things a filmmaker can do. For every star-driven success (The Fugitive, Mission: Impossible) or witty recontextualization (The Brady Bunch), there are overwrought duds (Lost in Space, Bewitched) aplenty. So if you’re director Peter Segal and your task is to bring the popular ’60s show Get Smart to the big screen, you want to be careful to (1) not merely imitate the iconic performances of Don Adams and Barbara Feldon in the original series, and (2) not ignore the knowing wit that made the series popular, while entertaining the folks who may never have seen that show. Since I was a fan of the TV series, I’m happy to report that Segal gets it almost right in this new film.

First, the casting of the two leads is dead on. Steve Carell is one of America’s top comic actors, but he also has an underlying edge of pathos that works great for the character of Maxwell Smart. As a field agent for top U.S. spy agency Control, Smart is viewed as an asset by the Chief (an inspired Alan Arkin, another great casting choice); he’s just kind of clumsy and overeager at times. Yes, that generates plenty of laughs, but it doesn’t really cross the line into slapstick.

Smart finally gets to go on a mission after being cloistered in the office as an analyst for too long. When the evil overseas crime syndicate KAOS, headed by the megalomaniacal Siegfried (Terence Stamp), attacks Control and begins implementing a plan for world domination (naturally) utilizing stolen nuclear materials, it’s up to Smart, Agent 23 (Dwayne Johnson) and of course the beautiful Agent 99 (Anne Hathaway) to pull interference. A trip to Chechnya gives Carell and Hathaway a chance to bicker, battle the bad guys repeatedly and even share a supremely silly and yet weirdly poignant dance-off in which Carell’s footwork with an obese local is meant to one-up Hathaway’s with bad guy Krstic (David S. Lee).

Smart clearly has a thing for the lovely Agent 99, and it’s just a matter of time, we can see, before she’ll feel the same toward him. Meanwhile, there are brutish Russian thugs to battle, laser-fied booby-traps to maneuver through (Hathaway is a delight in this sequence) and dumb mistakes to rectify, such as Smart’s tendency to zap himself with his tiny poisoned-dart-shooting crossbow. Devices such as that definitely recall the old series, but such things are fortunately not overdone.

Nor are the visual gags or dialogue. Carell is a similar physical type to Don Adams, but he wisely doesn’t even try to imitate him; he just interprets the type of character Smart’s supposed to be through his own sensibility. Maybe he plays it too safe at times, but that’s forgivable. Hathaway is ravishing in her role, and her seriousness and physical energy here only add to her appeal. She’s not the same Agent 99 Barbara Feldon was, but there is a batch of small cameos, at least one of which is well and truly hilarious.

It’s also worth mentioning a couple of stellar chase sequences, which are filmed by talented cinematographer Dean Semler with real action-movie flair. It could probably be said that this film treads an overly fine line between wanting to honor the series and wanting to be accessible to modern audiences. Not all the dialogue or gags hit the mark, and the espionage milieu of the film is probably too familiar by now for anything in it to resonate in a fresh way. But with that said, Get Smart delivers a steady stream of laughs, some kinetically entertaining set pieces and endearing performances by the leads. It’s a good time at the movies, and somewhere, Don Adams is grinning with delight. | Kevin Renick

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