Intelligent Design
By Marianna Martin

Get Smart
Dir. Peter Segal, U.S., Warner Bros.

I debated: Should I go see Get Smart relying on vague childhood memories of the TV show in reruns, or rent a DVD of the series and remind myself of more than just the infamous shoe phone and Don Adams’s rapid-fire deadpan? Mercifully, the spirit of the Friday summer matinee won out, and I went to the theater having researched no more than the show times. Perfectly capturing the effortless silliness of the television series (and yes, we do get the old toys like the shoe phone and, my personal favorite, the unbelievably counterproductive “cone of silence”) Get Smart runs with the original’s giddiness, and thankfully never resorts to a mechanical update to current events. Peter Segal’s production clearly understands that acknowledging how much the political landscape has altered since the end of the Cold War is vital to making the efforts of CONTROL’s intelligence agents compelling today, but there also seems to be an equal understanding that cramming the movie full of gratuitous pop-culture references, or, say, having Maxwell Smart (Steve Carell) take on Islamic terrorists, aren’t the most effective ways to do so.

Instead, the post–Cold War landscape is depicted as infinitely complicated with a plethora of geopolitical players for CONTROL to keep tabs on, and how the fictional spy agency fits alongside the CIA, NSA, etc. is actively questioned in the movie, foregrounded rather than explained away. Carell’s Smart is an intelligence analyst with a scrupulous and pedantic work ethic, and the movie even has the chutzpah to suggest that Smart’s overthinking and overanalysis, while tedious to comedic effect, is still a preferable alternative to the underthinking and underanalysis rampant in the other agencies. If this implies the presence of some political teeth in a movie loaded with goofy physical gags one after another, then the palpable nostalgia for the Cold War era as one of relative innocence confirms it, including a few rueful observations on the rapid collapse of capitalism into kleptocracy in many post-communist countries. Further, though Smart and Agent 99 (Anne Hathaway) pursue and thwart the bad guys, they never forget that those bad guys are people too, Smart cautioning his colleagues that to forget the humanity of your enemy is a grave mistake that leads to bad strategy. This belief endears Max to the Chief (Alan Arkin) who fights for his agency and its retro philosophies of intelligence with passion against the current administration and its Cheney-alike.

Though current geopolitical issues are addressed with arguably greater (and more ironic) sophistication in Get Smart than I’ve seen on the big screen since 2001, the success of this film certainly also lies in its casting. As Maxwell Smart, Carell is superb at displaying a peculiar combination of incompetence and isolated prowess, waging a losing Buster Keatonesque war on the physical world around him while simultaneously thinking well on his feet. This is a clever update of the character (whose charms for 99 were always somewhat obscure to me), and Carell plays the expert and the bungler with earnest enthusiasm both. Alan Arkin makes the most of his limited screen time as the Chief, chewing scenery when necessary, though his consumption of the boards pales next to Terrance Stamp as the KAOS agent who plots to blow up an American landmark. Also in a small role is Heroes’ Masi Oka, equally charming on the big screen, but the top prize for charm goes to Dwayne Johnson, who’s convinced me that casting agents should perhaps be pursuing ex-WWE stars more aggressively—he plays his looks, physicality, and presence for laughs, and continues to be an almost too convincing action hero. And though I’ve been entirely immune to Anne Hathaway’s apparently winsome charms thus far, her Agent 99 plays up the potential for gawkiness as well as grace in her figure, and she uses her epically long legs to get some serious laughs, contorting her way through a room booby-trapped with lasers. I’m amused that so far no Hollywood screenwriter seems to feel Anne Hathaway can exist in nature, for she comes straight from films whose entire plot is “how she arrived at looking like Anne Hathaway” (The Princess Diaries franchise, The Devil Wears Prada); an explanation is apparently necessitated even in this film, as her character’s “current face” is the result of extensive plastic surgery. She still seems unable to wade into the deep end of the emotional pool, but it’s hard to find too much fault in that considering this film’s strengths lie in its adept skimming of surfaces.

Although its easy laughs come fast and furious—sometimes so dumbly you’re embarrassed at your own chuckling—Get Smart isn’t without heart, to my pleasant surprise. Comedy’s (mostly unfunny) mean streak in recent years has engendered so many fat suits as automatic gags that I was fairly distressed early on when Smart flashes back to himself being very overweight in previous years and thus failing the physical tests for becoming a field agent. Refreshingly, in a summer where The Guru’s midget and crotch-kicking jokes (though Mike Myers also favors the fat suits) were this film’s main opening-weekend box-office competition, this foray into prosthesis turned out not to be a cheap fat joke, but a biographical note to establish Max’s empathy for underdogs. In a jaw-droppingly sweet moment with no strings attached (which looks absolutely dreadful as edited in the trailers), Smart singles out a quite overweight woman instead of some tarty-looking debutantes for a dramatic dance at a ball. He picks her not out of incompetence or to target her for mockery but clearly out of respect. Instead of crushing or menacing him, as large female bodies seem required to do in American cinema, she proves an agile and enthusiastic dance partner, and their show-stopping performance draws a standing ovation from the other ball attendees. Perhaps it’s simply election-year optimism, but the giggles in Get Smart are offered with such a startlingly good-natured view of humanity that they make you feel a bit better about everyone else rather than just about yourself at the cost of others. In Get Smart, today’s world, though scary and confusing, isn’t irreparably broken: it just needs to be returned to the hands of the careful and the caring.