Turning a beloved television show into a film isn’t as easy as simply writing a longer, feature length script. For every Sex and the City or X Files that successfully makes the leap from small to big screens, there’s a Bewitched, Mod Squad or The Honeymooners, all ideas that should have worked but failed to find audiences. Or, in the parlance of Maxwell Smart, “They missed it by that much…”
The new big screen adaptation of Agent Smart’s exploits, Get Smart, is loosely based on the 1960s television series and while it tries to be all things to all people—there’s slapstick, action, romance, The Rock!—what it doesn’t try to be, for better and for worse, is a photocopy of the original series.
In the new film evil doers KAOS infiltrate the super-secret offices of CONTROL and learn the identity of each of their working agents. The only two uncompromised operatives left are Agent 99, an expert spy who was recently rendered unrecognizable after massive reconstructive plastic surgery—unless of course you saw Brokeback Mountain or The Devil Wears Prada and you’ll note she looks just like Anne Hathaway—and Maxwell Smart (Steve Carell), a desk-bound analyst who recently passed his field agent exam. The future of CONTROL and the free world rests in their hands as they do battle with KAOS head honcho Siegfried (Terence Stamp).
Fans of the television show will be pleased that many of the touchstones from the series are firmly in place. Max uses a shoe phone; there’s a new, but not entirely improved cone-of-silence and, of course, the catchphrases—“Sorry about that Chief,” “Missed it by that much,” and “Would you believe…”—are all intact.
What has changed is the tone. Get Smart has the silly jokes and the pratfalls of the series, but it can’t seem to decide whether it is a full-on comedy or an action film, or both. Either way it is an uneasy mix topped off with an unconvincing romance that only muddies the waters even more. Just when the movie works up a head of comedy steam it is often sidelined by a full-on action sequence and vice-a-versa.
Carell puts his own spin on the character which actually has little to do with the original Agent 86, Maxwell Smart. As played by Don Adams in the series and a couple of reunion movies—The Nude Bomb and the TV movie Get Smart, Again—Smart was an ironically named klutz who prevailed against evil not because he was clever or talented but because he was a self-confident fool who usually got lucky. Carell’s take on the character is different and it changes everything.
His Maxwell Smart is smart; a dedicated worker bee who tries harder than everybody else and prevails because of perseverance. It’s a small change but it inverts the character from someone an audience enjoys laughing at to someone who tries to make the audience laugh with him. That one change sucks much of the anarchic spirit of the series out of the big screen treatment, leaving us with a rather generic spy spoof.
That being said there are some good things about Get Smart. Carell makes good use of his innate comic timing and brings a straight-faced charm to the role, but I wish they hadn’t called him Maxwell Smart. By any other name I would likely have thought this was an interesting comic creation but, frankly, he pales by comparison to Adams who imprinted his take on the character on an entire generation’s consciousness. For those unfamiliar with the original show, however, and there are likely many younger audience members who have never had the pleasure, Carell’s Maxwell Smart will become the new standard should this movie spin off into a sequel or two.
There is much to enjoy in Get Smart; there are some good gags, a nice nod or two to the television series, some good action and even an improbable but fun explanation regarding the gap in age between Agent 99 and 86, but for old timers like me who grew up on the television series it doesn’t feel like the real deal.