“Get Smart” – Mission Unaccomplished – 2 popcorns

By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic
Would you believe yet another TV sitcom reprised to feature length proportions? Yep, this week’s updated throwback is “Get Smart,” the 1960s small screen spoof of everything spies which featured the quick-clipped jibes of Don Adams as Agent 86/ Maxwell Smart, and Barbara Feldon as 99, his lovely, competent sidekick in sleuthing.

The show was vastly successful, has run in syndication for many years and, judging from this circa 2008 homage, is apparently inimitable. Not that Steve Carell isn’t a perfect choice for the title role. Likewise, Anne Hathaway as the complementing, no-nonsense beauty is a good fit. But the magic, the comic je ne sais quoi, just isn’t there.

Director Peter Segal’s handling of Tom J. Astle and Matt Ember’s script is proficient if not inspiring. The attention to detail is notable. And cameos by a who’s who in Hollywood should have given it the jaunty feel it lacks. It reminds of a writer who exhibits great penmanship, but no creative oomph. It all looks good on paper.

Such big screen revivals start with a strike against them. Like the new wife of a widower who had a great first marriage might opine, she’s always there. No matter that much of it is nostalgic fantasy, wrapped up in the perceived innocence of simpler times and seen through rose-colored glasses. As a result, there are two movies to be judged.

First, there’s the paean to an acknowledged television icon. Artistic reverence must be paid. At the dusk of TV’s golden age, just after Kennedy’s assassination, “Get Smart” arrives at the official end of our postwar ebullience. Color is coming in; naiveté and the TV tray are traded for introspection. Our inescapable acerbity finds an outlet.

Then, on a less heavy note, man, there is the movie in a bubble, delivered to a generation unfamiliar with its antecedent and all that entails. OK. So these under 30s don’t see the sacrilege of putting ketchup on a hot dog. Still, their observed ambivalence on the night I viewed the new “Get Smart” tacitly closed the generation gap.

Curiously, there are plenty of funny lines, interspersed with the usual derring-do as CONTROL, led by the ever-amusing Alan Arkin, tries to rein in the bad guys of KAOS. Yet the jokes, including some well-founded running gags, sputter like safety matches in rain, never catching ablaze with the comedic momentum it takes to be a barnburner.

Despite how obediently director Segal has dotted the i’s and crossed the t’s of his ode to a sitcom, even its glossy new look doesn’t imbue the work with its own, sorely missing animus. There is no novelty here, no new, funny way to look at the people, institutions and situations that we so desperately needed to laugh at in the Cold War climate.

It tries. Bringing us into the 21st century, Terence Stamp is appropriately megalomaniacal as Siegfried, a terrorist who doubtlessly studied his “Goldfinger” (1964). Assisted by yes-man Shtarker (Ken Davitian), he informs the U.S. that he has stolen twenty nukes and, unless paid a ransom, will distribute them to unfriendly countries.

The convolutions are many as Max and 99 travel to Moscow to get to the bottom of the plot. Entering into the mix are complications involving fellow Agent 23 (Dwayne Johnson), the evolving flirtation between our hero and his at first standoffish partner, and suspicions regarding Smart’s loyalty.

But the plot is overly intricate for the purposes of comedy …so much so, in fact that, too often, while we’re trying to follow the dramatic contortions, the laughs get lost somewhere in the crevices. This in turn impacts the character relationships, precluding the sort of ensemble feel that might have given the effort an added, humorous nudge.

Yet almost each portrayal can be enjoyed in and of itself. You’d be hard put to find a better lead than Steve Carell. It is only in the area of Max’s competence, if splitting hairs, where fault may be found. While we always knew Don Adams’s Max would save the day, he nonetheless evinced a dicey quality. Mr. Carell suggests no such uncertainty.

More feminist in interpretation than Barbara Feldon’s 99, Anne Hathaway’s accomplice is nonetheless entertainingly sexy. Dwayne Johnson is good in the humorously hulking sort of thing he does; Stamp imparts a “serious film” menace to matters, and Alan Arkin as The Chief makes you wish he’d abandon propriety and just steal the troubled show.

But instead, adding insult to injury, it goes on and on, a good twenty minutes more than necessary. There is a compulsion to tie up every loose end, as if filling in useless filigree might make up for the dearth of hilarity. Hence, the over-engineered “Get Smart” outwits itself…the end result proving just slightly less than clever, its comedic IQ nil.

“Get Smart,” rated PG-13, is a Warner Bros. release directed by Peter Segal and stars Steve Carell, Anne Hathaway and Alan Arkin. Running time: 110 minutes

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