Remaking the satirical '60s spy sitcom Get Smart without Steve Carell in the Maxwell Smart role would have been pretty dumb.
Lucky for them -- and, by extension, us -- the creative team behind this rejuvenated Smart wisely tapped the unassuming funnyman to fill the late Don Adams' telephone-disguised-as-a-shoe. Carell's nimble turn as a calculatedly incompetent agent of CONTROL ensures that this modern spin on an outdated television property -- while rarely intelligent -- is consistently witty.
Created by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry, Get Smart aired from 1965-'70 on NBC and CBS. It starred Adams as Agent 86, chief operative of a secret U.S. government spy agency that routinely battled the forces of KAOS.
The television program's inherent structure contained enough broad physical comedy and international espionage to warrant a big-screen treatment without overhauling what people liked about the show in the first place. Detached European baddie Siegfried (embodied by detached Brit Terence Stamp) sums it up best when describing Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" to Carell's undercover agent. "It's a bit familiar," Siegfried muses, "but it ends with a bang." There's no better way to encapsulate this hybrid of action and laughs.
KAOS still plots generic evildoings -- we're briefed on yellow-cake uranium thefts that suggest a possible nuclear explosion on U.S. soil. When CONTROL's Washington, D.C., headquarters is blown the smithereens, The Chief (Alan Arkin) sends his top operative, Agent 99 (Anne Hathaway), on a mission to Moscow with new partner Maxwell Smart (Carell) in tow.
Director Peter Segal comes to Smart after back-to-back-to-back Adam Sandler comedies. He has a completely different comedic tool in Carell, and doesn't hesitate to experiment with the actor's go-for-broke physical approach to a gag. The most inspired finds Smart in a cramped airplane bathroom, where he attempts to escape plastic handcuffs using a miniature harpoon tool. The cuffs, of course, are the only thing Smart repeatedly misses. His toe, ear, cheek, arm, and unmentionables take a razor-sharp beating in a violently humiliating (and hilarious) sequence that might rival the chest-waxing scene from Carell's breakout hit, The 40-Year-Old Virgin.
Blessed with the sexiness of a Bond girl, Hathaway's main assignment is to look amazing in leather cat suits and diminished cocktail dresses (mission accomplished) as she lobs comedic softballs to her home-run-hitter of a co-star. Dwayne Johnson (formerly known as The Rock) treads water as uber-spy Agent 23 -- he is to CONTROL what Michael Jordan was to the Chicago Bulls, and though Johnson is underused, there's a reason that reveals itself in time.
Clever casting extends to the film's numerous cameos. Bill Murray pops by to play a lonely agent assigned to a tree on the National Mall. Kevin Nealon plays a hot-headed Department of Homeland Security executive. And James Caan grins sheepishly as he affects a Texas drawl to lampoon our current president.
Others share the stage, but Smart is Carell's show. The versatile performer deserves the same praise Jim Carrey once earned by crisscrossing genres with ease. The transition from television (The Daily Show, The Office) to movies is impressive enough. But Carell has also proven himself comfortable in warmhearted ensemble comedies (Dan in Real Life), acerbic art-house comedies (Little Miss Sunshine), and blockbuster popcorn flicks.
Not that he's immune from a dud here or there. The last time Carell infiltrated D.C. for a summer comedy, he sported a snow-white beard and piloted a self-made ark to the steps of the Capitol, and Evan Almighty, sank like a stone to the bottom of a humorless sea. Back in Washington and defending our nation's freedom, Carell delivers the laughs two-by-two. Get on board Get Smart.
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