Would you believe … ?
Movies based on old TV sitcoms should all be as good as Get Smart. In fact, if the shade of the late Don Adams will forgive me for saying it, the original Get Smart should have been this good.
The Get Smart trailer has been playing in theaters and on YouTube for most of the last year, and it’s a 24-karat hoot—so now that the movie is here, we can’t really say it’s a surprise. But it’s certainly a relief; there was always that nagging little worry that the trailer was building us up to expect more than the finished product would deliver. So relax, everybody—some of the best moments may be in the trailer, but not all of them, or even most. Not by a long shot.
First things first: Casting Steve Carell as secret agent Maxwell Smart was truly inspired. Early on, Jim Carrey was connected with the project, and while Carrey would no doubt have been funny, he probably wouldn’t have had that quality of dogged, hard-working, good-hearted cluelessness that goes to the heart of Agent 86, and which comes so naturally to Carell. Last year, when the trailer first started playing and Carell rose into view in that secret-entrance phone booth, a light bulb came on in the heads of the sitcom’s longtime fans. It was the perfect pairing of a new star and an old character—indeed, have any of the last three James Bonds seemed so right at the mere mention of the actor’s name?
Thankfully, the inspirations didn’t stop with Carell. With 11 producers, co-producers and executive producers listed in the credits (including Carell himself), it’s hard to know whom we should thank for having Anne Hathaway (virtually the reincarnation of Barbara Feldon) as Agent 99, or Alan Arkin as the Chief of Control (matching the exasperated gravitas of Ed Platt with a comic intensity all his own), or Terence Stamp as the supervillain Siegfried, or Dwayne Johnson as superstar Agent 23, or Patrick Warburton as Hymie the robot (making a late appearance here, but promising more in the inevitable sequel).
Get Smart is written by Tom J. Astle and Matt Ember and directed by Peter Segal. Their résumés are decent enough, as run-of-the-mill Hollywood work goes—Segal directed 50 First Dates and Anger Management, among others, while Astle and Ember wrote Failure to Launch and various TV episodes—but there’s little to suggest the sharp and clever work they do here. The creators of the original Get Smart series, Mel Brooks and Buck Henry, are credited as “consultants,” and it’s easy to believe that they were not only consulted, but listened to (especially Henry, who has a lower showbiz profile than Brooks, but a more refined sense of comic structure). Astle and Ember’s script is a seamless blend of comic invention and spy-caper plotting, logical enough to hold our attention but outlandish enough to spoof the genre. There’s more genre to spoof now, too: The original series had only James Bond and The Man From U.N.C.L.E.; now there’s Mission: Impossible and Jason Bourne, plus 40 more years of Bond.
The seamlessness of the movie—the pitch-perfect cast, Segal’s light-footed pacing, Dean Semler’s sparkly cinematography, Trevor Rabin’s frisky music (deftly incorporating Irving Szathmary’s iconic original theme)—all of that is merely icing on the cake. The cake itself is the fact that Get Smart is very, very funny, building laugh upon laugh from scene to scene. It doesn’t front-load its best gags into the first half-hour and wear out its welcome before it’s an hour old; the laughs build within scenes to a good payoff, with each scene’s laughs building on the ones that went before. This is another area where I see the influence of Buck Henry—the current incarnation of Get Smart has more in common with Henry’s scripts for The Graduate and What’s Up, Doc? than with Brooks’ for Blazing Saddles or High Anxiety.
True art in movies is wonderful, but a well-made product that doesn’t abuse or insult its audience has its place, too. Get Smart is Hollywood moviemaking at its best—everybody’s on the same page and having a high old time, and the fun is infectious.