*. Get Smart isn’t so much a movie as a product. There’s a brand name, going back to a beloved television show from the 1960s. There’s a big budget (an $80 million comedy!) and an impressive collection of talent in front of the camera. Plot-wise there’s a little something for everyone. Necessarily, in the judgment of Brian D. Johnson, because as a summer blockbuster it was “obliged” to be not just comedy but action and romance. With all these boxes being ticked how could it go wrong? Or right?
*. Well, they really did blow it. There are maybe a couple of laughs here but the overall sense is that of waste. In my notes on It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) I questioned the whole idea of putting “bigness” together with comedy. Watching Get Smart I was thinking the same thing. You can’t just throw stars at a big property and expect it’s going to work. To what purpose were all these players assembled? Bill Murray appears in a cameo as a lonely agent stuck in a tree. It isn’t funny. James Caan is the president, and he isn’t funny. Alan Arkin is an actor I miss, and I think he can be funny but he sure isn’t here. Terence Stamp was made to play the heavy but is given nothing to work with. Dwayne Johnson . . . you get the point.
*. There’s nothing interesting in the action part of the plot either. A terrorist organization (KAOS) is going to blow up Los Angeles with a nuclear bomb unless they get so many billion dollars. Our hero, Maxwell Smart (Steve Carrell), recently promoted to field agent, is sent along with Agent 99 (Anne Hathaway) to stop them. So it’s a buddy flick with a mismatched pair of good guys. There’s a case of mistaken identity. A capture and an escape. A break-in to steal some important secrets. A bad guy with a giant sidekick. A race to stop the bomb from going off.
*. At least in the romance department there’s a bright spot. Anne Hathaway has the rare ability to project as both sexy and funny and she’s the only reason to watch this movie, totally upstaging Carrell at every turn.
*. Where did things go wrong? The usual suspects. The script doesn’t seem to me to have anything worthwhile in it. Take the fat stuff. I guess seeing Carrell paired with a large woman in the ballroom dance-off scene is basic odd-couple comedy, but I couldn’t figure out what was supposed to be funny about Max having been obese once. Just seeing Carrell in a fat suit?
*. Then there’s the direction. David Ansen in Newsweek referred to Peter Segal as “a comedy specialist lacking any apparent sense of humour.” That’s an assessment I’d agree with, and I was really surprised when I checked out Segal’s filmography. His big-screen directing debut came with Naked Gun 33⅓: The Final Insult (1994) and he then went on to Tommy Boy (1995), My Fellow Americans (1996), The Nutty Professor II: The Klumps (2000), Anger Management (2003), 50 First Dates (2004), The Longest Yard (2005), this movie, Grudge Match (2013) and My Spy (2020). How can someone work for 25 years in this genre directing so many not-funny movies? He’s like the Rob Zombie of comedy.
*. Well, I mentioned the big budget and the fact is Get Smart made it all back and then some. So perhaps that answers my question. I guess three Austin Powers movies hadn’t killed audience appetites for retro-flavoured spy spoofs yet. There were (of course) plans for a sequel but Carrell didn’t like the initial script, which I think means it must have been really bad. Then Carrell wrote his own script but it never went anywhere. I think that’s fair, as this movie was more than enough.