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Is it praise or criticism to call a movie competent? That's the term that best describes "Get Smart." It revives the old TV franchise with the same slapstick derring-do and lightweight comedy that tickled audiences in the waning days of the Cold War. It's less a reboot or a re-imagining than a rerun.
On balance, it's not great, not bad. If you smile at the memory of Maxwell Smart's "would you believe" shtick or the Cone of Silence, there's a lot in the film that will please you. Should you expect a fresh, imaginative take on spy comedy, however, the movie will be about as appealing as a reheated TV dinner.
Steve Carell steps easily into Don Adams' shoe-phone as Smart. He's a master at layering stiff, deadpan dignity on top of ineptitude, which is the perfect mix of attributes for the would-be superspy. As the film opens, Smart is an analyst for CONTROL, a secret government agency still engaged in its decades-long struggle against the nefarious forces of CHAOS.
He's a master at detecting important information in mountains of intercepted chatter. He even knows what it means if a CHAOS agent orders a muffin with his coffee: yearning for comfort food indicates stress.
But (as in real-life Washington) no one reads intelligence reports. Naturally, Max longs to be a swashbuckling field agent.
When the identities of CONTROL's operatives are exposed, the inexperienced Max is named Agent 86 and paired with veteran Agent 99 (Anne Hathaway). She is not at risk because she recently had plastic surgery to change her appearance. She confesses that she also asked for a more youthful look (the better to make Hathaway a suitable romantic foil for Carell, who is 20 years her senior). The pair set out for Russia, looking for yellowcake uranium in - where else? - a Moscow bakery.
The film is scripted and directed by Hollywood mid-listers who do a passable job. Screenwriters Tom J. Astle and Matt Ember (of the limp Matthew McConaughey romcom "Failure to Launch") keep the story moving along smartly but don't approach the surreal flights of imagination that sometimes graced the TV series (which was created by comedy legends Mel Brooks and Buck Henry, after all).
Director Peter Segal apparently decided that fat people are automatically funny when he made "Nutty Professor II: The Klumps." He repeats the lesson here with flashbacks to a grossly overweight Max and a ballroom dance sequence that recalls the ballerina hippo from "Fantasia."
The supporting players keep the film's comic energy elevated. Dwayne Johnson brings a larger-than-life swagger to the role of heroic Agent 23. Alan Arkin is warm yet irascible as the Chief, James Caan contributes a brief, entertaining turn as the president, and Bill Murray tosses off a goofy, underplayed cameo as ever-camouflaged Agent 13.
With comic resources like this, "Get Smart" should have been a hoot, not just satisfactory. Missed it by that much.