Dreamed up by comic geniuses Mel Brooks and Buck Henry, who sold their idea to NBC in the 1960s, the original “Get Smart” was a wacky novelty that even cynics and hardened critics could regard as a guilty pleasure.
It was dumb, unmitigated fun easily digested in short, sitcomish doses.
Four decades later, “Get Smart,” the movie, has the unenviable distinction of being annoyingly dull.
Despite the presence of Steve Carell, who riffs on Maxwell Smart, the secret agent first played by the late Don Adams, this rebirth comes to us as a cluster of gags less than enhanced by invention or comic timing. Too often, this errant attempt at comedy lingers on a visual joke so that even an initial titter turns into a grim grimace of pain.
Witness one tedious bit early on in which Smart, trying to free himself from plastic handcuffs, spews a dart that stabs his foot. Then another dart, and another one, and another one to different parts of his body.
DIRECTED BY Peter Segal
SCREENPLAY BY Tom J. Astle and Matt Ember
STARRING Steve Carell, Anne Hathaway, Alan Arkin, Dwayne Johnson, Terence Stamp, Ken Davitian, James Caan and Bill Murray
RUNNING TIME: 110 minutes
It’s but one example of the clumsy slapstick approach that tries to pass for fresh humor in a work that is blatantly stale. It’s a movie that has no idea what it wants to do or why it exists. When Brooks and Henry got their idea, the airwaves and movie screens were glutted with stories about secret agents: “I Spy, “The Avengers,” “Mission: Impossible,” “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.,” “Matt Helm,” the James Bond features. It was the Cold War. The Russkies were our enemies. Even kids had natural referents, immediately recognizable subjects for a spoof.
In the ’60s, the whole shebang was ripe for satire, and here was a TV show that fit the bill. As a social phenomenon, shows like “Get Smart” may have deflated our anxieties. It was not classic comedy, but it had its place. You might have asked yourself, “How and why am I watching this stupid thing?” but you found yourself watching just the same.
In Peter Segal’s movie, relying on a lame script by Tom J. Astle and Matt Ember, everyone seems bored or displaced. As the Chief, Alan Arkin has no room to maneuver. Anne Hathaway is Agent 99, but she too flounders. While Dwayne Johnson has the most decent outing as a fellow field agent, Terence Stamp merely runs thought the motions as the villain in possession of nuclear bombs he threatens to detonate if his demands are not met.
Meanwhile, in cameos, James Caan shows up as the president and Bill Murray as a spy in a tree. Occasionally, the movie takes a few well-aimed jabs at Bush and Clinton, but its motto seems to be playing it safe, just in case it a gag offends someone.
That leaves us with Carell, who is a dead-on ringer for the Adams’ character. Still, he adds little that is fresh to the role other than an imitation. His best scene is one in which he dances with an overweight partner, maybe 200 pounds heavier. When Smart informs her he lost 150 pounds, she tells him she has too. It’s one of the few really funny lines in a lackluster attempt at original comedy. Carell is in a movie wedded to nostalgia, a comedy aimed in part at a target audience that has no nostalgic memory.
When the movie has nowhere to go, the solution is to mount an expertly and elaborately edited chase scene that goes on for minutes. It’s one more example of how computer-generated effects fill in for a lack of imagination.