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Dumbed Down Smart

Get Smart is a well-cast update but gets sidetracked by potty humor

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Directed by Peter Segal, who helmed the more disastrous 2005 Longest Yard remake, Get Smart is a rather randomly timed big-screen adaptation of the popular '60s TV series. The original Get Smart was essentially Spy vs. Spy as imagined by Mel Brooks — a slapstick comedy about a CIA-like secret government organization called CONTROL that spent its time combating the nefarious baddies from international troublemakers KAOS.

Set in the present, this modernization extends the series' conceit into the post-Cold War era. CONTROL is now tracking loose nukes in the former Soviet Union.

As secret-agent man Maxwell Smart, Steve Carell makes for a more mild-mannered bumbler than the late Don Adams from the original series, but his square-john looks and knack for physical comedy make him an excellent choice for the role. (It seems established at this point that any scene that requires Carell to run is comedy gold.) And this good casting extends throughout the film.

Anne Hathaway seems too young for the role of love interest/work rival Agent 99, a fact the script explains away. In the film's Alias-like secret-agent set piece, she hangs in there with Carell in a comic dance-off and is ace eye candy, all endless legs and décolletage. Her lingering girlishness works against Carell's hangdog asexuality. An older, bolder choice (Angelina Jolie?) would devour Carell here.

Former pro wrestler Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson continues to hone his solid action-comedy chops, Hollywood vets Terence Stamp and Alan Arkin (excellent as "Chief," who attacks a Dick Cheney stand-in during a Homeland Security meeting with the battle cry, "I've been waiting for this since Nixon!") lend gravitas, and the secondary cast is peopled with several effective comic pairings.

Unfortunately, this cast doesn't quite get the movie it deserves. The spy-flick plotting is overly familiar and nearly beside the point. There's some inventive comic gadgetry — exploding dental floss, a Swiss Army Knife that includes a blowtorch and harpoon — but the laughs are so few that the script increasingly relies on out-of-character toilet humor (urine, feces, vomit, bare male ass) to provoke the audience.

In this context, the film's feeble attempt at political commentary feels hypocritical. At this point, I'm on board for whatever invective you'd want to hurl at the Bush administration, but it feels cheap to mock the president for being a philistine and an oaf when you're encouraging the same qualities in your own audience.

The television series Get Smart ended its run in 1970 and hasn't been a regular syndication fixture in recent years, so I wonder how much of the potential audience here is actually going to pick up on nostalgic nods to the series the film contains — the shoe phone, the repetition of the catch phrase "Missed it by that much," etc. The source material suggests an audience that came of age in the '60s, but the coarseness and noisy action set pieces are geared toward teenagers, who buy movie tickets in greater numbers. It could be that Get Smart is a compromise that doesn't fully please anyone.

Get Smart

Opening Friday, June 20th

Multiple locations

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