Missed it by that much.
Actually, the new version of "Get Smart" misses by a fair-size margin. It's too bad. It's just trying to give us a good time at the retroplex. Even if you're 14 and you've never heard Irving Szathmary's classic deedley-deedley-deedley-deedley theme before, it's enough to make you smile. This is all any of these TV-to-screen comedies are after: a few laughs. Who knows? "Get Smart," starring Steve Carell in the role originated by Don Adams (though initially offered to Tom Poston!), may well turn into a summer hit of the "well, it's good enough" variety.
But if it does--if director Peter Segal's dutiful, heavy-spirited comedy clicks with fans of the old TV series as well as with those too young to give a rip about the original--it'll be a case of the right cast winning out over the wrong material, material that is immaterial regarding what made the show so popular in its spy-infested, James Bonded, "Man From U.N.C.L.E." era.
Segal is going for his own style and tone, different from the 1965-1970 series. He wants not a spoof, not even a comedy, primarily, but a big, noisy action comedy, with the occasional bout of wince-inducing slapstick amid an onslaught of impersonal stunt work, half of which is zazzed up with impersonal computer-generated effects. Let me put it to you. Is it funny watching Carell's Maxwell Smart accidentally clock Alan Arkin's stunt double in the head with a fire extinguisher? I guess it could've been, but it would've taken a director and an editor who knew how to handle that sort of thing.
Carell swims against the tide, as do his key co-stars. The screenplay by the "Failure to Launch" team of Tom J. Astle and Matt Ember (though one suspects the strenuous efforts of various script doctors) pairs Smart with Agent 99 (Anne Hathaway in the old Barbara Feldon role, though without Feldon's perpetually insinuating vocal delivery) as they pose, uneasily, as newlyweds to gather intelligence about America's enemy organization, KAOS. Max's adversary Siegfried (a grim Terence Stamp) has the nuclear destruction of Los Angeles in his plans. The big bomb is set to go off at a key, cacophonous moment in Beethoven's Ninth in a concert at Disney Hall. As Max might say: It's the old "Man Who Knew Too Much" trick!
Max and 99, both of whom are saddled with back-story involving self-image issues, globe-trot from Washington, D.C., to Moscow to L.A. The jokes, well ... the jokes must've gotten lost on the Moscow leg of the flight. I like Carell. I enjoy Hathaway, who was key to the deserved success of last year's "The Devil Wears Prada." But they're stuck with lead weights for banter, and the occasional "Sorry about that, Chief" and "Would you believe ...?" and "Oh, Max!" only bring back memories of why some of us loved the show. Director Segal has done his share of comedies ("Tommy Boy," "Anger Management"), but they tend to be shrill and coarse instead of clever, and his eye for physical comedy goes straight for the pain, instead of the painfully funny.
Two human elements in this mechanical enterprise pulled me through. Bill Murray plays Agent 13, hiding in a tree. He's wonderful in his one scene. Also, Arkin's Chief lightens the load, simply because the actor owns the most indelible deadpan vocal topspin in the business, and because he knows in his bones that if you under-react to a lot of frenetic nonsense, the audience will appreciate the strategy.
As I said: It might get by. But it's films such as these that make you appreciate what the old folks refer to as "a light touch."
See the trailer and find local showtimes for "Get Smart."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun