Steve Carell has always been a master of implosion. He's at his pungent, original best suggesting currents of thought and feeling roiling right beneath the surface and also running deep, so when he lets them out the effect is cathartic, funny and revelatory all at the same time. Carell smooching Catherine Keener endlessly in The 40-Year-Old Virgin is a contemporary comic milestone, kicky and true. And he was keenly sympathetic as the suicidal academic who shakes off self-loathing in Little Miss Sunshine to become part of a family team. He never broke character: He made speeding through an automatic door seem like a triumph of the will.
But when you star him in an explosive genre - a baggy-pants apocalypse like Evan Almighty, or an espionage parody like Get Smart - gags that rely on computerized effects and splintering materiel tend to cancel out his gifts. And the fault for the misfire of Get Smart doesn't belong only to the filmmakers. If Carell has a weakness as a performer, it's that he can insist too much on his own vulnerability and niceness; he even softened up Dan In Real Life, and that was a Jell-O mold of a movie. His knack for sneaking humanity into broad comedy is all wrong for Maxwell Smart, the blundering yet incredible lucky agent for the super-secret government spy agency CONTROL.
In the original Don Adams TV version, created by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry, Smart spoofed the cocksure certainty then running rife in the fantasy universe of Bond and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Lean, dead-eyed and insistent, like a blunt stiletto, Adams' Smart could have been terminally grating were it not for his sublime idiocy. When he resorted to his catchphrases - like "Would you believe?" or "Ah ha, the old (fill-in-the-blank) trick" - he ended up spoofing his own omniscience. The purring support of Barbara Feldon's lithe Agent 99 was both his secret weapon and the series' juiciest running joke.
In a misguided equivalent to a comic-book "origin story," the movie portrays Smart's entrance into the world of field agents as a revenge of the nerds. (He even has a couple of lovable funky-geeky sidekicks.) He's now a former fatty and ace analyst who yearns to be as effective in harm's way as in the briefing room. Carell hasn't lost his comic instincts, and at times his amiability wins you over. During a poorly staged but crowd-pleasing ballroom-dance scene, Smart executes deft kicks and turns with an obese Russian woman, impressing some svelte Slavic mean girls as well as Anne Hathaway's Agent 99, who is tripping the light fantastic with a pretty-boy arms-dealer. Carell still knows how to use his subterranean resources to detonate quirky laughs, matching his multileveled concentration to spastic physical movements or a sort of slapstick stasis; he's as ticklish when he maintains focus and stillness while in pain as he is when he's wounding himself with out-of-CONTROL gadgets.
But the movie is a time-killer without a killer instinct. You never get the sense that the director, Peter Segal, knows where the funny is, whether in his star or in the story. (Tom J. Astle and Matt Emner wrote the script.) Even if it lolls you into a pleasant mood, Get Smart evaporates the minute you leave the theater, and the same can be said of Carell's performance. Get Smart doesn't give Carell enough to do, or not to do.
All his Maxwell Smart wants is to run with the big boys in the field: He's a little too much like Jerry Seinfeld's drone hoping to soar with the fighter jocks in Bee Movie. And the movie makes him so smart you can't believe he'd ever judge himself against men whose egos are on steroids. Even so, Smart's wannabe-macho camaraderie with established he-men like Dwayne Johnson (the comic actor formerly known as "The Rock") as Agent 23 has more pizazz than Smart's courtship of Agent 99. Hathaway is a game performer, and the movie's most clever gimmick closes the age gap between the two (in this version, Agent 99 was a blond bombshell before she had extreme plastic surgery to hide her compromised past). Yet her Agent 99 and Carell's Smart share zero chemistry or (what's worse) biology, and their dialogue is like "Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better" repeated endlessly without the verbal gumption or the music. Especially when she's eluding a laser-triggered alarm system, Hathaway, physically, comes off as a slender, pale imitation of Catherine Zeta-Jones in Entrapment.
Carell registers less powerfully the more intricate the plot and its mechanics get - it's all about CONTROL's opposing international crime agency, the evil KAOS, commanded by Terence Stamp, gathering nuclear materiel from Russian arms-dealers and planting a bomb in the U.S. Segal lacks the knack for swinging the audience into a character's point of view. Get Smart might have been memorable if the moviemakers figured out how to exploit, visually, the intellectual-underdog perspective they put on the material. Instead, they haul Carell's Smart and Alan Arkin's "the Chief" through the same paces as Daniel Craig's Bond or Bruce Willis' John McClane but with a few sight gags or pratfalls to ensure that we know it's all "meant to be funny."
This star is too substantial and talented for a big-screen remake of a TV show with wordplay that registers only as an affable reminder of a zingier original. Series co-creators Brooks and Henry are listed as creative consultants for this movie. Henry, of course, also wrote The Graduate, but even before I saw that credit I was struck by how much Carell resembled a white-bread version of Dustin Hoffman in his Benjamin Braddock days. What a great, fresh star Carell might have become in the Hollywood of the 1960s and 1970s. How sad it is that he has graduated into the new Hollywood big-time - the franchise sweepstakes - with movies about nothing like Get Smart.
Watch a preview and see more photos from Get Smart at baltimoresun.com/getsmart
(Warner Bros.) Starring Steve Carell, Anne Hathaway, Dwayne Johnson, Alan Arkin, Terence Stamp. Directed by Peter Segal. Rated PG-13 for rude humor, action violence and language. Time 110 minutes.