Steve Carell is not Jim Carrey, nor does he try to be. Carrey can take a crappy looking Los Angeles movie like “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective” and make it work by the force of his physical and facial contortions alone. That’s why Carrey makes $20 million for one of his throwaway comedies; you don’t need an expensive supporting cast or special effects (he’s his own effect). You barely need a script. You can practically let cameras roll and take a nap.
But Carell’s comedy comes from character; and against all odds, in the otherwise disposable comedy “Get Smart,” he has found one. His Maxwell Smart is not (just) a clumsy boob. He’s smart (he used to be the CIA-like CONTROL’s top analyst), he’s an improviser, and he can handle himself in a fight or on the dance floor. He’s not smooth – he’s a neophyte with everything to learn – but he desperately wants to succeed at his new job. We can relate.
As they go about their various lame-brained adventures, so much of the movie depends on Smart’s gentle conquest of his partner, Agent 99, played by Barbara Feldon in the original ’60s TV show, here essayed by Anne Hathaway. A previous relationship with a work buddy compromised her identity, and she underwent plastic surgery. She now has a young face (the doctors must have kept going, because those are the legs of a twenty-five-year-old, and she fills out a dress as if she were poured into it and forgot to say when). Having endured all that, you can imagine 99 (missed opportunity: why not 69?) isn’t looking to hook up again. She has even more reason to resist her partner’s advances than Vesper Lynd did in the last “James Bond” movie. Bond wore Vesper down; but come on, he’s James Bond.
“Get Smart’s” climax takes place at the gleaming Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, one of Frank Gehry’s gravity-defying edifices. There is no wrong way to shoot a Gehry building; any framing will yield gorgeous intersections of planes and angles. Anne Hathaway has a face like a Gehry. And if there’s not much fire in those big, dark eyes – she can be a bit bovine (imagine a spitfire like Rachel McAdams in the role!) – she can be sexy by going at her own pace.
But the building and the beauty are about all there is to look at. That climax involves the seriously shopworn device of nuclear warheads (the world will pay some billions of dollars or SPECTRE-like KAOS will blow it up, blah blah blah). No irradiating all the gold in Fort Knox here. And where is KAOS’s evil base? In the center of a dormant volcano? In a ship whose bow can split and swallow a submarine whole? No – it’s in a bakery, a set barely even dressed. The always clever “Bond” movies were self-satirizing, and hardly need a spoof – and what oxygen was left has already been consumed by Mike Meyers’ “Austin Powers” flicks.
Character. Steve Carell found one, and Anne Hathaway is at least a game and glamorous foil. But characters need support, and it’s clear from every frame of “Get Smart” that director Peter Segal, late of three insipid Adam Sandler movies, was on a donut break. Here’s another of his tawdry productions. Is it unfair to ask for action scenes that are thrilling in addition to being setups for a joke? Are we wrong to expect a feature film, for which we paid at least $8, to look better than a TV show? If you answered “yes” to the above, “Get Smart” will skate by. But “The Forty-Year-Old Virgin” – a movie that earned the hard work of its talented star – this is not.