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Get Smart: more tepid TV nostalgia

by Glen Baity

Film adaptations of television shows don’t have to be bad. It’s just that they usually are.

I’ve sat through remakes of Bewitched, The Brady Bunch, Lost in Space and Starsky and Hutch, among others, and still I’ve retained my optimism. Against all odds, I was hoping Get Smart would buck the trend. I’m a Steve Carell fan, and thought him perfectly suited for a modern-day Maxwell Smart.

And he is. It’s the material that lets him down.

The film is an update of the classic Mel Brooks-penned comedy series from the late ’60s. The title character, when we join him, is the top analyst with Control, an elite government spy agency. Max is the best in the organization at decoding terrorist chatter, but he dreams of joining the ranks of Control’s covert, James Bondesque field operatives. This comes to pass when a data breach unmasks every Control secret agent currently at work around the world, meaning the brass has to introduce fresh blood to keep from compromising the organization’s undercover operations.

The culprits in this virtual caper are the agents of Kaos, Control’s aptly-named nemesis organization with nuclear aspirations. That group has the notable advantage of being led by Terrence Stamp, who is only one of many thoroughly likeable actors involved with this project. Also aboard are Alan Arkin, Dwayne Johnson, James Caan, Patrick Warburton and Masi Oka of “Heroes.”

Smart – newly christened Agent 86 – is teamed with a reluctant Agent 99 (Anne Hathaway), who aids him in his mission to bring down Kaos, which (of course) wants to destroy the world. Or at least Los Angeles.

Giving all these talents an open stage would have been the wise move, but the film holds them back with a mediocre script. Director Peter Segal (50 First Dates) allows too many of his scenes to drag on a minute or two too long as the actors chase down long-winded, poorly-worded jokes. There’s a pretty common practice these days in which comedians are paid to “punch up” scripts, trimming the fat, rearranging scenes and doing rewrites to make the comedy really pop. Get Smart looks like it should’ve been a prime candidate. Was Brooks ­- the man who gave the world “Spaceballs: The Toilet Paper” – too busy to offer a few notes?

Not to give the false impression that it’s all bad – it’s not, and the cast is the main reason why. This is a group that knows how to deliver a punch line, so when the laughs hit, they can be quite funny (there’s one particularly brilliant cameo, which I won’t spoil, that involves an agent assigned to duty inside a tree). But the full-on howlers are rare, and if you can remember more than one or two of the gags a day after viewing, you’ve taken better notes than I have. Some of the action sequences are carried out with gusto, but as the film presses on toward the inevitable disconnect-the-bomb-before-it-destroys-LA conclusion, I’ll admit that my mind tended to wander.

This happened quite a bit during this film, though I promise I tried my best to pay attention. It’s all in the execution: Get Smart is a send-up of spy movies, of course, but it’s perhaps the gentlest parody I’ve ever seen, so tame it often feels less like a spirited lampooning and more like a feeble imitation. It’s silly, sure, but ­- shoe phone or no shoe phone – not silly enough to be a classic, nor to carry the mantle of the original.

To comment on this story, e-mail Glen Baity at glen.baity@gmail.com.

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