Starring Steve Carell, Anne Hathaway, Terence Stamp
Directed by Peter Segal
When he was created in 1965 by Buck Henry and Mel Brooks, Agent 86, a.k.a. Maxwell Smart, was just a television bumbler who spoofed the smooth-as-butter spy movie hero and commented upon Cold War insecurity.
But in 2008, a spy who speaks into his shoe dwells in a more complicated comic landscape, one where America's domestic and international bungling have become a larger slice of the comic pie. In this Get Smart for the big screen, homeland security is a joke, a bureaucratic call-line where terrorists have to direct their threats to the proper channels. The American president (James Caan) is a cowboy who can't pronounce "nuclear." And in the post-9/11 world, a man fiddling with his shoe on an airplane goes from being merely kooky to being a terrorist threat. Times have changed for Maxwell Smart (Steve Carell). Yes, he worries about "profiling" criminals, but the character is also a throwback to the sexist beliefs of yesteryear — he's threatened by his career-focused female partner Agent 99 (Anne Hathaway). In fact, he warns 99 that her eggs may dry up and her ovaries may turn to dust if she waits too long to reproduce.
Carell, of the humorously block-of-wood body posture and pursed, painfully offered smile, is an analyst for the secret government spy agency CONTROL, whose days are spent decoding Russian chatter. But in this latest incarnation of Get Smart, Smart yearns to become an agent, with all of the world travel and hand-to-hand combat that entails. Like the workaday suckers of Office Space or The Office, Smart wants to get out from behind his desk and take on the bad guys — the ones with Amazonian physiques and cranky dispositions, like the criminal mastermind Siegfried played by Terence Stamp.
In a nod to the paranoia of yore, here the villains are not Iranians or North Koreans, who might smack of too much imposition of real world issues, but old school Russians with an arsenal of nuclear weapons at their fingertips.
Get Smart's globe-trotting plot is as forgettable as the wrapper you shuck to get to the candy bar. In this case, the candy bar involves Smart's inability, as one of the few international agents whose face is not yet known to the criminal KAOS network, to accomplish rudimentary spy tasks. However, Get Smart manages to escape from its mediocre, second-generation comedy conventions in the moments of demented slapstick which rely more on the contrast of Carell's stoic woodenness and manic pratfalls than on writer Tom Astle and Matt Ember's wan riffs on the old television show starring Don Adams.
A scene where Smart is arrested as a suspected shoe bomber on an airplane and tries to wriggle out of his plastic handcuffs with the use of one of his gadgets in a matchbox-sized airplane rest room is both hilarious for Carell's physical contortions and for reflecting our own plentiful humiliations at the hands of modern life. Chaplin had his bullying cops, but modern-day Americans are tormented more often by our world of convenience: the cell phones, tiny bathrooms, and devices that are supposed to ease our lives but often make them more complicated. In Get Smart, the flame throwers and poison dart guns have their revenge, perpetually turning against hapless, clueless Smart as the far more accomplished Agent 99 looks on in disgust.
As the peaches-and-cream female agent, Hathaway does a serviceable job getting annoyed when the sexually threatened Smart offends her spy skills. But 99's and Smart's Tracy and Hepburn-style sparring soon gives way as the beauty is won over by the geek — after a cyclone of fist fights against the evildoers.
Also reflecting the current zeitgeist, this Get Smart is a revenge-of-the-nerds tale not too far from the current Judd Apatow strain (Knocked Up, Superbad); in this case, the gadget-wielding geeks wage war against the bully-boy secret agents. The icon of agent supremacy is Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson as Agent 23 who offers a thin parody of his own macho screen image.
The fact is, Mike Myers' groovy-but-hideous British international man of mystery Austin Powers remains the high-water mark as a spy movie gimmick, especially when you put that franchise next to the current crop of redux screw-ups like Carell's Maxwell Smart or Steve Martin's Inspector Clouseau. And in the Apatow era, one more fallible-but-lovable man-boy may be one too many to make Get Smart's concept the laugh riot it aims to be.