Without relativity—“in which the existence or significance of one entity is solely dependent upon that of another”—Get Smart would be nothing. It would either be mediocre or it would be instantly forgettable, and therefore cease to exist. But when placed alongside its box office competition, or some of its comedic forebears, Get Smart is breezy and distracting, with more than a few good moments and a healthy dose of wit.
Two movies opened here last weekend: Get Smart and Mike Myers’ The Love Guru. It was tempting to go for the latter just to see how much vitriol could be accumulated, like toxic floodwater, and then unleashed in a gloriously bitter bloodletting of a review. But the pain—the pain would have been too great. So Get Smart was chosen, and what a fortunate choice it was.
It’s easy to forget, because of their later successes, that Mel Brooks and Buck Henry honed their weird slapstick comic instincts on the TV series “Get Smart.” It was the progenitor of this genre, airing almost a decade before Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles.
Now Steve Carell steps into Don Adams’ hallowed dress shoes. He is Maxwell Smart, the spy with the least smoothness, who longs only to be a field agent like his hero, Dwayne Johnson (the artist formerly known as The Rock). Anne Hathaway plays Agent 99, his foil and very, very young love-interest (who, according to the movie’s logic, is actually quite a bit older).
Carell’s deadpan, I’m-smirking-so-hard-underneath-this-silly-face thing works well for him here, particularly considering the fact that Jim Carrey was originally attached to this role. The casting, in general, is pretty inspired. Johnson’s natural charisma—and heft—work to his advantage, and his comedic sensibility seems to have moved far beyond the “People’s Eyebrow.” He is a charming fellow.
Hathaway works hard and smiles many blinding smiles, though her good timing is somewhat undermined by the movie’s insistence that she is sexy beyond reason. Is she? All that creepily white flesh? And how old is she? Should the audience member feel guilty when all he can think of is The Princess Diaries?
Then there’s Terence Stamp, delivering brilliantly crabby one-liners as Siegfried, the main bad-guy. One particularly funny and underplayed moment involves him whacking his telephone with a violin bow (though no one else laughed at this). There are many little instances like these, which could be played so much broader and with so much more emphasis or repetition—think Mike Myers—but aren’t.
The real triumph here is Alan Arkin. Whoever’s idea it was to cast him as the Chief deserves some kind of special treat. Arkin is dry, sharp and hilarious, and looks as though he’s having the time of his life. The scene in which he expresses shock at having nearly been impaled through the eye by a giant fake swordfish upstages anything that Carell & Co. have done throughout the entire film.
As a director, Peter Segal—his list of illustrious credits includes Tommy Boy, three Adam Sandler vehicles and Nutty Professor II: The Klumps—does his best work when he simply steps out of the way. The writing is clever enough, and the actors are game enough, that he need do very little. His action scenes are serviceable. But periodically he gives in to his schmaltzy, sitcom-ish proclivities, and then the movie’s humor sinks to the lowest-common denominator. There is, for instance, the recurring gag of Carell in a fat suit. The fat suit is a tired joke. Put it to sleep. Rest in peace, fat suit.
Theoretically, you cannot and should not judge a movie based on all the mistakes it didn’t make or how low your expectations were when you walked in the door, but that’s tempting here. There were no pop culture references, for example, and no musical interludes. The actors played it straight in as goofy a way as possible, and it did the trick.
If Get Smart shows up on TV in a year’s time, say, and you have nothing else to do, you might watch it again. You will, after all, have forgotten most of it, and there are surely worse ways to spend your time. You could be watching a Mike Myers movie.