I may have come to Get Smart with expectations too high. After all (and I am about to confess what an utter geek I am--er--was), I loved the tv series so much that when it changed networks from NBC to CBS for its final season and the local Seattle CBS affiliate looked like they weren't going to broadcast it, I started a petition that I sent in to them demanding (yes, demanding) that the show be aired. A petition that I managed to get several hundred people to sign. Have I totally embarrassed myself yet? (I must say that the affiliate did end up airing the show, probably not because of my petition, but it was all for naught--ratings were horrible and it quickly disappeared, despite the addition of the adorable Smart triplet babies). The thing about the original series was that it managed to be smart (no pun intended) while being wildly stupid at the same time. A perfect send up of the then-raging spy genre, created by the dynamic duo of Mel Brooks and Buck Henry, with a pitch perfect performance by Don Adams as chief undercover dunce Maxwell Smart, and the unbelievably alluring Barbara Feldon as his partner "handler" (and who wouldn't want to be handled by her, I might ask?), Agent 99, Get Smart managed to deliver solid laughs week after week with the goofiest of gags and running idioms like "sorry about that" that become part of the national patios.
The problem with this film adaptation is that it doesn't stay true to its roots. It tries too hard to have it both ways, stylistically speaking--it has all the elements of a "real" spy thriller, while trying to meld the Get Smart parody ethos on top of it. It makes for a very uneasy mix that nonetheless delivers a few wonderful moments and does have two very appealing performances by leads Steve Carell and Anne Hathaway as Smart and 99.
You know this is not your father's Get Smart almost right off the bat when Max is shown not to be a doddering fool, as he was in the original series, but the top analyst for Control, albeit a sort of geeky one with a clumsy side. Carell is his typically likable self in this film, not trying anything near an Adams impersonation, either vocally or performance style wise. The film's Maxwell Smart is, well, smarter than the television version. Adams' take on the character was based in Smart never quite understanding what was going on as he stumbled from misadventure to misadventure. Carell instead is a well-meaning, if oafish, office stiff trying incredibly hard on his first real field mission.
Hathaway, by contrast, actually does seem to be doing a mini-Feldon in some of her vocal characteristics, and there's no doubt that her "disguise" in the big ballroom scene is based on Feldon's iconic pageboy hairdo and chic fashion sense. Hathaway delivers some nice comedy bits here and keeps up rather gamely with Carell's more off the cuff, improvisatory delivery style.
The supporting cast is uniformly enjoyable, with Heroes' Masi Oka and Nate Torrence doing great work as the real geeks of Control, in charge of creating all the gadgets that Max and 99 use. Alan Arkin does a creditable chief, but he has nowhere near the bluster that Ed Platt had on the series--but then again, with Max not being the blundering idiot here that he was on television, there's little need for that bluster. Dwayne Johnson acquits himself surprisingly well as a light comedy star in his role as Agent 23, about the closest thing Control has to James Bond. And Terence Stamp makes for a hiss-worthy villain as the KAOS bad guy. Patrick Warburton also does his best Dick Gautier impression as robot Hymie in a brief (and funny) cameo toward the end of the film; one can only imagine that Hymie will be a bigger part of a sequel, since I assume this is being thought of as a new franchise for Carell and Hathaway. Unfortunately two SNL-alum cameos by Bill Murray and Kevin Nealon are singularly unfunny.
While the film never quite finds the right balance between comedy and action, there are some good moments in each genre. Updated gags from the show, like a "new, improved" Cone of Silence, work very well. Occasionally there's even some deft verbal humor, as when the Chief berates Agent 23, consigned to a desk job after KAOS uncovers everyone's identity, for stapling the head of another agent in a fit of pique. "We don't do that kind of thing at Control, that's CIA stuff," admonishes the Chief. Some other physical humor gags, like a too-graphic episode with Max misfiring a mini-harpoon, are literally painful to watch. The slam-bang action finale also delivers the goods, if it goes on a bit too long and has one too many "oh, no!" moments for its own good.
My hunch is if you didn't grow up with Adams and Feldon and Platt, you're going to come to this repurposing of the Get Smart brand with a lot more tolerance and may therefore find it more enjoyable. For those of us who do still harbor great memories of the original series, I can only say to the makers of this version--sorry about that, you missed it by that much.