Turning old TV shows into movies is often less a matter of paying tribute than of conceding creative desperation. My mother used to caution me, “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” I would offer similar advice to Hollywood filmmakers: If you don’t have something funny to say, don’t make any big-screen comedies.
Why, for example, do a movie version of the classic ’60s spy spoof “Get Smart”? Presumably this film was greenlit for pretty much the same reason television chestnuts such as “Bewitched,” “The Beverly Hillbillies,” “Sgt. Bilko,” “McHale’s Navy” and “I Spy” hit the big screen: because they had built-in name recognition, and the people who made them couldn’t think of anything better to do at the time. Films of this sort are almost always a terrible waste of time, and Get Smart is no exception.
This is particularly grievous, given that the film also wastes the considerable talents of its star, Steve Carell. The actor hits a career low here in the role of CONTROL operative Maxwell Smart, a character immortalized by the late Don Adams and inexplicably retooled by the picture’s creators.
The whole point of the original series — the brainchild of no lesser talents than Mel Brooks and Buck Henry — was to offer a bumbling, Clouseau-like parody of James Bond. In this update, the agent has been reconceived as a methodical, highly efficient asset who every now and then resurrects one of the show’s famous catchphrases (“missed it by that much, would you believe . . . ?,” etc.). What’s the point of a Maxwell Smart who doesn’t bumble?
Anne Hathaway costars as sexy sidekick Agent 99, and Alan Arkin plays the Chief. He’s fine in the role but is given so little of interest to do or say that I generally found myself drifting off during his scenes and musing on how much more screen energy he and Carell generated the last time they appeared together, in Little Miss Sunshine. You know a comedy’s not working when it only makes you laugh by bringing to mind funny moments in other films.
Anyway, Hathaway is sexy, sure, but she too is given little of interest to do or say. What made the relationship in the TV show amusing was the disparity between 99’s sophisticated competence and her partner’s oblivious buffoonery. Screenwriters Tom J. Astle and Matt Ember sabotage that dynamic by capriciously boosting Smart’s IQ. To make matters duller, they impose a generic romantic development on the two. Why bother to bring classic TV characters back to life if you’re just going to remove the very qualities that made them memorable?
Generic appears to be what Astle, Ember and director Peter (50 First Dates) Segal were going for in terms of story. Does it get more ho-hum than secret agents racing against the clock to catch an evil genius before he can nuke a major American city? Terence Stamp gives the impression of battling narcolepsy as he plays the head of KAOS, a paint-by-numbers maniac named Siegfried. His second-in-command is played by Ken Davitian, who most recently graced the screen as Borat’s jumbo naked wrestling partner. Again, every time he entered a scene, off my mind drifted to funnier times in a funnier film.
It’s not every day you spend nearly two hours in the company of Carell and never laugh. I think I may have chuckled once or twice at something another cast member had to say, but I swear I didn’t find a single thing the leading man did or uttered sufficiently entertaining to elicit a titter or chortle, much less a guffaw. The film’s creators do him no favors by staging so many prolonged action sequences. Jason Bourne he is not.
Who, then, I wonder, is supposed to be the audience for this film? Fans of the television show are likely to find it a forgettable riff lacking even trace amounts of Brooks/Henry brilliance. Younger viewers won’t know the first thing about the source material, so they won’t catch its catchphrases. And it’s not like they haven’t been treated to enough effects-heavy action fests. I guess Get Smart was targeted to Steve Carell fans, though its humor is more of a type likely to be embraced by enthusiasts of, say, Larry the Cable Guy. Carell’s fans, as a demographic, are far too smart to take much pleasure in a comedy as dumb as this. Which, by the way, Segal and company set up for a sequel.
Would you believe that won’t be necessary?