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Wednesday, October 1, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 62.0° F  Overcast
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Get Smart: Mission: Improbable
Steve Carell is an unlikely spy in Get Smart
A smarter Maxwell Smart.
A smarter Maxwell Smart.

One of these days we'll run out of old TV shows to resurrect, and then what will we do? In its late-'60s heyday, Get Smart was always good for a laugh. Don Adams delivered his lines like they were stray bullets whizzing toward the wrong targets, and the spy-versus-spy high jinks engaged in by CONTROL and KAOS were a nice joke on the similar shenanigans engaged in by the CIA and the KGB. But that was then, and this is now - well, maybe not. Nearly two decades after the Berlin Wall came crumbling to the ground, here's Get Smart, with Steve Carell taking over for Adams and Anne Hathaway slipping into Barbara Feldon's old shoes. And aside from the fact that there's absolutely no compelling reason for it to be here, it's actually pretty funny at times. Then director Peter Segal stages another action sequence.

The movie's being billed as an action comedy, but this is one of those cases where the action works against the comedy, crushes it in its big clumsy fingers. It's when Maxwell Smart is trying to talk his way through something, not crash his way through something, that the movie catches some of the TV show's spirit - the throwaway gags tossed off like smoke bombs. All the old props are back: the telephone booth, the shoe-phone, the Cone of Silence. And there are several more where those came from, including the inevitable array of lasers that forces Smart to do one of those watusi numbers. This time, he's been given a character arc. When the movie opens, he's an intelligence analyst whose 482-page reports put everybody to sleep. By the end, he's a field agent whose 482 ways of blowing a mission keep everybody awake at night.

His partner: the ever-lovely Agent 99, who's been retooled as a bit of a ball-breaker. For someone so stunningly beautiful, Hathaway has a little trouble holding the screen, but she seems to enjoy mixing it up with Carell, who stops way short of an outright Don Adams impersonation. In fact, you almost wish Michael from The Office was playing the role. That would have been one way to spoof a spoof. But the movie version, in some ways, plays it straighter that the TV version did. Carell's Smart is, uh, smarter than Adams' was; in other words, he isn't a total klutz. And squaring that circle, keeping Smart a klutz while turning him into a hero becomes a bigger and bigger challenge as the movie wears on. When he's briefly suspected of being a double agent, our first thought should have been that he has enough trouble being a single agent. Instead, it actually seems possible.

Anything's possible with the plot that scriptwriters Tom Astle and Matt Ember set in motion. Why they went with Russia instead of other international hot spots is anybody's guess, perhaps because it seemed safer. But the premise is so threadbare that there's nothing to pin the jokes on. Terence Stamp, as insouciantly chilly as ever, plays a villainous mastermind who hopes to take the world hostage with some yellow-cake uranium, and he'd be fine in, say, Mission: Impossible 4. But we could really use a little more comic flair here. (Where's Dr. Evil when you need him? Or even Mini-Me?) Speaking of comic flair, Dwayne Johnson has a small role as Agent 23, a Zohan-like super-duper-agent whose muscles gleam like polished steel. Maybe they teach you this kind of thing in the WWF, but that guy really knows how to strut his stuff.

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