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Get Smart

In a world grown almost as paranoid as at the height of the Cold War, the time is absolutely right for a character like Maxwell Smart. The first time around, creators Mel Brooks and Buck Henry teamed with Don Adams to lampoon the CIA while pretending to be James Bond. Let's just say that in 2008, Director Peter Segal missed it by that much.

Actually, he really does come close. It's just that the new Get Smart can't quite decide what it wants to do and be. Segal keeps it moving forward, and hits a lot of great moments. Maxwell Smart and Agent 99 travel all over the world, sometimes developing as characters and making us laugh a lot. But they also seem to be traveling between two different types of movies.

Part of the problem is that instead of just diving into this world, Segal and his credited screenwriters Tom J. Astle and Matt Ember treat this as an origin story. When we meet Smart (Steve Carell), he has spent most of his career as an analyst for CONTROL, a supposedly disbanded spy organization standing against (literally) the forces of KAOS.

Though plodding as an analyst, Smart is also extremely brilliant at connecting the dots with his information. Even though he has rigorously trained his body, losing over 150 pounds, he shouldn't become a field agent because the Chief (Alan Arkin) needs him analyzing.

That is until the subterranean headquarters of CONTROL are destroyed. Someone on the inside has leaked the identities of all of their field agents, so no one can stop Siegfried (Terence Stamp) of KAOS in his latest diabolical scheme. A new field agent has to be commissioned, and that's Smart. Accompanying him, against her own wishes, is the beautiful Agent 99 (Anne Hathaway), who has herself recently had plastic surgery so no one would be able to identify her.

Since the television show inhabited its own loony world, Segal wants to keep that tone. Many characters from the series get updated, including a surprise cameo from the perpetually disguised Agent 13. The movie also introduces two new goofy scientists, Bruce (Masi Oka) and Lloyd (Nate Torrence), whose attitudes, at least, would have fit in the first incarnation.

But Segal also wants to tweak Bourne and Bond, acknowledging certain real world elements. While some characters are meant to be comedic, Stamp is forced to be a stoic and truly menacing villain, though he does have a lame sidekick in Shtarker (Ken Davitian, whose presence must mean they hope everybody laughs because it's that guy from Borat). Contrast that to the one original cast cameo - the original Siegfried, Bernie Kopell, shows up doing his character, even if it's not named.

CONTROL has imposing looking agents, obviously far more competent than Smart. Case in point, the ridiculously heroic-looking Agent 23 (Dwayne Johnson), who roots for Max to get a promotion and buddies up for reasons that never get explained.

That becomes the plot's big problem. The script keeps hinting at motivations to deepen these characters, but never resolves them. At one point, Agent 99 has serious moments that go nowhere, except at best to awkwardly demonstrate that Smart has gotten past her tough exterior - not because he's a great agent, but because he is a sensitive tender man.

These roads to nowhere are so egregious that when the traitor gets exposed, Segal just makes things really noisy in hopes we won't notice that an explanation is never really given. Luckily, the noise does provide good distraction, and Segal knows how to construct an action sequence with humor.

Pushing that along is a top-notch cast. Stamp can do evil in his sleep, though you might wish he could have cut loose a little more against Carell and had more fun with the part. As Agent 23, Johnson turns in one more piece of evidence in his charisma file. Why is he not a star?

The three real stars do make these roles their own. Arkin easily steps into the shoes of the Chief, mixing exasperation with respect for his new Agent 86. Given a lot more back story than Barbara Feldon had, Hathaway plays Agent 99 as her own character before melting into Feldon's performance at the end. It's a tricky turn, and noteworthy that she even captures Feldon's cadences without making it seem an imitation.

And then only Carell could have touched the role of Maxwell Smart. He avoids doing a Don Adams impersonation, though it's hard not to hear an echo in all the catchphrases. Good at both cerebral and physical comedy while also being just a sincere actor, Carell almost makes you forget that the script cannot quite decide if Smart is actually smart or dumb but lucky, depending on which state would be funnier for any given scene.

So the tone is wildly uneven. The plot doesn't quite gel. And it does one thing that took me right out of the movie for a few moments, having all of Adams' accoutrements on display in the Smithsonian, sort of implying that all those adventures happened, too.

Yet Get Smart is still pretty funny, a likeable effort that could painlessly turn into a franchise. I just wish that while watching it, I had been loving it.

(Of course, if you want to see the original series, check out our ad on the sidebar...)

Derek McCaw

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