'Get Smart'

Something about 86 and 99 doesn't add up.

By Steve Burgess 20 Jun 2008 | TheTyee.ca

Steve Burgess reviews films for The Tyee every second week.

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'Poor Maxi' Carell and Hathaway

When Get Smart first appeared on network television in 1965, the world was still nine years away from ABBA. When Maxwell Smart (Steve Carell) walks to work at Control HQ in the new movie of the Mel Brooks/Buck Henry creation, he is listening to "Take a Chance on Me" -- and it's three decades old. Don Adams is dead. Long time, Max.

Carell steps into the legendary phone shoes of Agent 86 in the big screen version of one of the most beloved TV franchises of the 1960s. He's joined by Anne Hathaway taking over the Barbara Feldon role as 99, Alan Arkin as the Chief, and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson as Agent 23. The great Terence Stamp mails in a standard villain performance as KAOS mastermind Siegfried. Returning are familiar catch phrases -- "Missed it by that much," "Sorry about that, Chief," "Would you believe..." -- but there are changes this time. Where Adams' Agent 86 was not just a bumbler but a genuine boob, in Carell's reading of the character, Smart actually is. These days, 86 is more nerd than buffoon. He's capable of quick thinking and even grace. As personified by the affable Carell, though there is little chance of Max becoming a Bond-like figure. Carell is solidly in 40-Year-Old Virgin territory here. It fits him like a rotary-dial loafer.

Feldon went Hathaway

As for Agent 99, no longer is she adoring and deferential, keeping her competence to herself. Not surprisingly Hathaway's updated model is a top dog who resents being leashed to Smart, a researcher-turned agent with zero field experience. Poor Maxi, as everyone calls him, must struggle to keep up. It's a different dynamic than the TV series.

Get Smart would be a better movie if it had followed that strategy more consistently. Unfortunately Get Smart 2008 frequently bogs down in awkward references to its source material, unable to develop its own rhythm as it struggles to toss in favourite old nuggets for the fans. Then there's the alleged 86-plus-99-equals-romance equation, which simply does not add up. Hathaway's 99 makes a more believable companion for the sleazy Russian tycoon she tangos with (perhaps because the real-life Hathaway has been dating a sleazy Italian who recently got sued over a deal to sell Catholic Church property).

By thaaaaaat much...

Get Smart is at its best when 86 and 99 hit the trail, leaving the old TV series behind as they work out their new professional relationship. There are some genuine laughs to be had when the movie goes its own way -- for example when Smart, who in this version of the story was once obese, awakes from chocolate cake dreams shouting "I'm fat!" At such times the movie develops a likeably goofy momentum. But razor-sharp parody, this ain't.

There's an attempt to spice things up with cameos from the likes of Bill Murray (as hapless Agent 13) and Kevin Nealon. I always enjoy watching Murray, but these bits generally just contribute to the pop-culture clunkiness of the whole affair. Unlike the 1980 attempt to bring the franchise to the screen, Get Smart is no bomb, nude or otherwise. But you know that line Max always says after he aims at something? Yeah. It's like that.

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