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Thursday, June 19, 2008

Get Smart is a Remake that Works

Directed by Peter Segal. Written by Tom J. Astle and Matt Ember. Based on the series by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry. Starring Steve Carell, Anne Hathaway, Dwayne Johnson, Alan Arkin, and James Caan. Rated PG-13.

As old Broadway shows are revived, new Broadway shows are spun from old movies so that new movies may be fashioned from ancient TV series. It's an iron law of the culture industry that turns out to be a pleasant surprise in the case of Get Smart, the late-'60s sitcom retooled as a vehicle for Steve Carell.

The most successful of the half-dozen spy shows that materialized in 1965 — a year after the Pop Art success of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. — the original Get Smart was distinguished less by its absurdist attitude (the show was conceived by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry) than by its catchphrases and casting. Standup comedian Don Adams drew on his nightclub William Powell impersonation to play Maxwell Smart, the dense, inept, officious Agent 86, teamed with über-'60s girl Barbara Feldon as the fabulously sexy, competent, and inexplicably adoring Agent 99.

Surprisingly resilient for a show based on a single joke, Get Smart ran for five seasons, inspired a 1980 Hollywood flop (The Nude Bomb), and, nine years later, a more successful made-for-TV movie. (In between, Adams provided something close to his Maxwell Smart persona for the animated series Inspector Gadget, as well as reviving Smart to shill for Kmart and White Castle.) Fox actually brought the series back to life in 1995, with Adams and Feldon and, as a chip off the block, Andy Dick. All residual pop irony was trumped in 2002, when the most celebrated of the show's ridiculous props, the shoe phone, appeared in an exhibit at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.

As directed by Peter Segal from a script by the authors of the Matthew McConaughey-Sarah Jessica Parker romantic comedy Failure to Launch, Smart redux is less a parody of a genre that had already passed into self-parody many moons before the TV show was in reruns, and more an all-purpose (and often quite funny) goofball action comedy in which ridiculous banter alternates with slapstick car chases and mid-air stunts. Segal, who has shepherded our reigning cartoon floats — Adam Sandler, Chris Rock, Eddie Murphy — through their parades, directs with relative restraint. No gag is held too long, and many one-liners are tossed off with impressive savoir faire. (In a bow to Mel Brooks, one character introduces himself as Nudnik Shpilkes.)

Although slapstick, the movie has been made for the tele-literate — recycling many of the TV show's catchphrases, along with shards of its musical theme. Agent 86, however, gets softened. No less deadpan or baroquely bumbling than the Adams original, Carell's Smart is actually smarter. He's also more lovably neurotic — a know-it-all intelligence analyst obsessed with his weight who dreams of becoming a real spy, like the heroic hunk Agent 23 (Dwayne Johnson). Thanks to a national catastrophe, he gets his promotion and becomes obnoxiously competitive once partnered with the dishy but acerbic 99, played by Anne Hathaway. In the movie's best stretch of physical comedy, Hathaway disguises herself as Barbara Feldon to attend a Russian oligarch's ball and winds up engaging Carell in a bout of cutthroat mambo one-upmanship. (Hathaway, whose lush looks tend to overshadow her abilities, is not only a talented actress but a graceful cut-up.)

First telecast less than two years after the Kennedy assassination and lingering on past the invasion of Cambodia, the original Get Smart was a priori anti-patriotic in making a mockery, week after week, of the CIA. (Mission Impossible, which made its debut in 1966, was the supportive antidote to such derision.) Although acknowledging the post-9/11 world, the movie Get Smart has no political subtext beyond a mild but persistent hostility toward the Bush administration. (On the eve of destruction, the president, played by James Caan, reads Goodnight Moon to a class of restless first-graders.)

Given that the whole notion of military intelligence has been pretty much discredited — or rendered postmodern in its lack of a fixed meaning — there's not much here to upset anyone. Still, it did seem that the number of triumphant fist bumps exchanged by the characters might strike the hysterics at Fox News as unduly terroristical. If so, the movie's sure sorry about that.

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