Get Smart (2008)

In Get Smart, Steve Carell plays the new Maxwell Smart as a sort of genius of compassion. Max has been passed over for field work for years, possibly because he used to be 150 pounds overweight; leaner now, he’s an expert at listening to and decoding terrorist “chatter.” Max’s insight is that “bad guys are people too” — he doesn’t mean that in a touchy-feely way, he means that in order to predict what they’re going to do, you can’t forget they have real, motivating problems. In the world of espionage and counter-espionage, this practically makes him a visionary. Kinder and gentler, yet willing to use deadly force if absolutely necessary, Max is perhaps — dare I say it? — a hero for the Obama generation.

Get Smart is an affable pile-up of action-comedy climaxes, spoofing the same ground that the old Don Adams show (1965-1970), created by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry, covered. It also spoofs newer spy movies (it gets considerable mileage out of the obligatory negotiating-through-a-laser-protected-room scenario); by now, we’ve had dozens of secret-agent adventures for Max to send up, as opposed to the relative few extant during the show’s run. It used to be that Austin Powers owned this side of the parodic street, but that series got more smug and unfunny along with Mike Myers, and it’s poetic justice that the humbler Steve Carell turned out to be the Myers-killer when Get Smart opened opposite Myers’ The Love Guru and made over three times as much money.

Stuck in the rear with the gear too long, Max isn’t especially skilled in the field, so of course he’s assigned to the older, more experienced and impatient Agent 99 (Anne Hathaway, whose character’s youthful appearance is explained away by plastic surgery). Their mission is to stop the usual megalomaniac — KAOS mastermind Siegfried (Terence Stamp) — from assassinating the President with a nuclear bomb. (James Caan gets his Dubya on as the Prez, saying “nucular” and introduced reading a kiddie book to a classroom.) There’s also Agent 23 (a smoothly self-satisfied Dwayne Johnson, whose future most likely lies in comedy), the Chief (typically exasperated Alan Arkin), and a pair of tech geeks (Nate Torrence and Masi Oka) who supply Max with gadgets more dangerous to himself than to the agents of KAOS.

This is probably the highlight of director Peter Segal’s underwhelming resume (which includes three Adam Sandler comedies); he doesn’t let his cast get lost in the action or the slapstick. I do wonder, however, why the movie builds up Max’s particular skill set and then turns him into a stock action hero. He does use his insight to defuse a hulking assassin (wrestler Dalip Singh Rana, also in Segal’s The Longest Yard, here again playing the Richard Kiel role), but when he treats a plump Russian lady to a dance — a nicely empowering moment in itself — nothing comes of it (I expected her to show up again and be more integral to the resolution), and in the end he’s left hanging from a speeding SUV and tackling an elderly man. Still, the action scenes do pack more tension than many another blow-out this summer, and the cast has ample charisma. And any movie that finds room to include a cameo (a literal cameo, only his face visible in an oval) by a comedy legend — a cameo that seems to spoof the whole concept of cameos — is welcome at the summer-flick table anytime.

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