Hilarious? Missed It by That Much.

Steve Carell takes on the role of Maxwell Smart in this comedy, based on the '60s TV series.Showtimes Video by Warner Bros.
By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 20, 2008

The trick here is adjective selection. (Don't try this at home, kids, it can be dangerous.) Is "Get Smart" "incredibly" funny? No, not hardly. "Incredibly" connotes that oxygen-deprived state of strangled panic, when the laugh has become your enemy and strives to kill you.

So is it "pretty" funny? Um, it's more than "pretty," because there's a tinge of patronization to "pretty," as if the commentator is annoyed that something so primitive and vulgar goosed him into grins. Equally true of "sort of" or "kind of" or "occasionally." What about "intermittently" funny? Nah. It's more than intermittent, if not quite "consistently" funny. Is it, then, "rather" funny. No. Sounds British. The reviewer is just back from doing his Rhodes work at Oxford and wants everybody to know.

It's "darned" funny?

El Perfecto! Bull's-eye! No wonder we won a Pulitzer! "Damned" would be too strong, but "darned" fits the movie's innocence, its earnestness (qualities of star Steve Carell as well), its pleasing lack of sophistication, its good nature.

Based on the TV comedy hit of the '60s -- when James Bond dominated the pop universe and imitations and parodies were the order of the day -- the movie is slick and smooth and ticks along primarily on the excellent chemistry between Carell and Anne Hathaway in the famed Don Adams-Barbara Feldon roles as Agent 86 and his far more capable female partner, 99, in the employ of C.O.N.T.R.O.L., a comic twist on O.U.T.O.F.C.O.N.T.R.O.L. (the CIA).

It must be said, for viewers who've seen the original, that the chemistry between the two has been slightly adjusted. There was never much sexual tension between the original characters because Adams's performance as Maxwell Smart was so stylized he didn't quite seem real; it was a character sketch, based on a funny, stretched-thin voice delivered through a perpetual grimace, usually commenting on its owner's behavior. It was a parody that knew, wisely, that it was a parody. Carell is somehow more human than Adams, which works because a half-hour is just long enough for a sketch character but close to two hours is way too long. We need recognizable behaviors and psychologies if we're going to stick with a character that long, and Carell's more neurotic and ironic Max works out well, as does his love of and attempt to woo the beautiful 99.

As for Hathaway, she's a revelation. Those eyes are still as big as Beemer hubcaps and just as dark and merry, but she's able to show more edge than her previous goody-goody roles have allowed. She's unimpressed with Max because she's so much tougher and experienced, and his ninnying literalizing frequently gets on her nerves. Also, whoever doubled for her in the stunt work -- dances, fights, maybe there was more than one -- did extremely well, providing an athleticism that stands in amusing counterpoint to Carell's fall-down, go-boom antics. Also, Dwayne Johnson has a nice turn as a good-natured uber-Agent 23, who casually beats the stuffing out of everyone, then smiles broadly and says, "Let's go to lunch." Masi Oka (Hiro from TV's "Heroes") and Nate Torrence are hysterical as Bruce and Lloyd, two nerdboy technicians oppressed by the more macho C.O.N.T.R.O.L. agents.

One irony is that the least effective jokes in the movie are derived from the TV show. The telephone booth entrance to C.O.N.T.R.O.L. headquarters (in the Smithsonian's old Castle building), the "cone of silence" that Max insists on even if everyone else considers it a loser, the phone in the shoe. These are mandatory, one supposes, to the franchise, but director Peter Segal doesn't get much out of them. He has much better luck with his cast, in particular Carell, with his uncanny ability to project deadpan, dunderheaded earnestness and logic unimpinged by real-world considerations. As well, the action set-pieces are played for laughs with just enough excitement underneath to give you a rooting interest in their outcomes.

Is there a plot? I can hardly remember. Oh, yes, now it's coming back, something stolen from Bond, in which the nefarious K.A.O.S., represented by imperious Terence Stamp and Borat's pal Ken Davitian, is stockpiling nuclear weapons to extort billions from the West. As a demonstration, they plan to nuke Los Angeles (no "How could they tell?" jokes, please). The story whirls Max and 99 from what would have to be called the C.O.N.T.R.O.L. control room to Russia to L.A. with a big fight sequence in each.

Unlike in the series, this Max actually kills people, not that the movie makes anything of it. Meanwhile, back at headquarters, the Rock is beating up nerds and the Chief is played with exactly the right touch of compassion and steel by Alan Arkin.

As I say: darned funny! Weightless as froth, forgettable as dew, but pretty darned funny.

"Get Smart" (110 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for rude humor, action violence and language.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company