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Control Freak



The primary reason to make a feature film from a television series is to guarantee an audience that crucial first weekend. Sometimes the ploy works: The Mission: Impossible movies, The Fugitive and the many incarnations of Star Trek all spun box-office gold. The strategy works less well with situation comedies. It's hard to alchemize two hours of big screen interest out of characters and premises that usually produce their laughs in 22 minutes. Hollywood hasn't even tried to translate such mega television hits as The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, All in the Family, Cheers, Seinfeld or Friends. Sex and the City has done pretty well, but its frank-mouthed roots on HBO make it a different creature. Hollywood did try to bring Sgt. Bilko and The Flintstones to the big screen but to pretty poor effect. And now we have Get Smart.

Directed by Peter Segal and based on Mel Brooks' and Buck Henry's 1960s spy spoof, Get Smart makes repeated bows in the direction of its progenitor and then largely heads off in its own direction. With the odds stacked against it, this is a smart move.

The height of the Cold War gave us James Bond in 1962, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. in 1964 and, to make fun of them, Get Smart in 1965. The TV show starred stand-up comic Don Adams (who captured three Emmys for the role) as a bumbling idiot of an espionage agent working for the top-secret American intelligence organization, CONTROL. Maxwell Smart, Agent 86, always made the wrong choices and, like Peter Sellers' Inspector Clouseau, nonetheless always came out on top. Max was assisted by the leggy, long-suffering brunette, Agent 99 (Barbara Feldon), and tolerated by agency boss The Chief (Edward Platt). Much silliness bubbled up over five successful seasons, and in its prime, the series provided the teens of America with a whole series of catch phrases. I was one of those teens, and particularly in its first two years, I was among its biggest fans. I nonetheless went to this theatrical treatment without much in the way of hope. And that was a smart move on my part.

Max is now played by the talented Steve Carell and 99 by the beautiful Anne Hathaway. The script acknowledges the TV series by including the lines 'Sorry 'bout that, Chief" (once), 'Would you believe . . ." (once) and 'Missed it by that much" (twice). The filmmakers begin the way the TV show did, with Max walking down a long hallway through a series of security doors and into a phone booth. As the picture progresses, we see movie Max in TV Max's old red Sunbeam and later talking on his famous shoe phone, a gag that will surely puzzle post-boomer viewers of the cell-phone era. In certain ways, Carell's 86 is radically different from Adams'. TV Max was always a dope. Carell's character doesn't have to get smart, because he is smart, the best analyst at CONTROL. The filmmakers might have done something interesting with this switcheroo, but instead they just try to have it both ways. Movie Max is smart enough to foil the bad guys from evil empire KAOS, but still a pretty thoroughgoing fool. The mix proves gratingly contrived.

The current Get Smart tries to hold its viewers with a mix of slapstick comedy, pyrotechnic special effects and action sequences so preposterous you'd think the dark-haired fellow jumping from airplane to speeding SUV is Tom Cruise rather than Carell. Clearly the filmmakers think 'ow ow" equals 'ha ha." Here's what Max has to endure before he can deep-six KAOS kingpin Siegfried (Terence Stamp): He's deafened by a gunshot. He's run over by a jogger. His toes are crushed under a loaded dolly. He's smashed by a sliding steel door. He's beaten to a pulp by a KAOS henchman (Arthur Darbinyan, who is made up to resemble Richard 'Jaws" Kiel). And at the climax, he's dragged by a train. Most pitifully, while trying to free himself from plastic handcuffs with a dart bow, he instead needles himself in the arm, neck, leg and back and through his ear and cheek. Ho ho ho, that's a good one.

Truth be told, however, I didn't detest Get Smart as much as I had expected. Hathaway is a lithe and convincing 99. I'm sure she didn't do her own stunts, but she swings a mighty karate kick. Moreover, I did laugh. Not a lot, but some: one snort, seven surprised chuckles and two genuine, sustained belly laughs. This is not high praise, I recognize, but I've been to worse.

Agent 99 (Anne Hathaway) and Max Smart (Steve Carell) battle the forces of KAOS in Get Smart. - 2008 WARNER BROS. PICTURES

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