Before Austin Powers found his mojo, before Mel Brooks and Buck Henry were regarded as comedy geniuses, there was Maxwell Smart. • Agent 86 for the fictitious CONTROL espionage agency was the spy everyone loved in the 1960s, when James Bond and the man from U.N.C.L.E. were taken far too seriously. Armed with his half-wit, a shoe phone and the dumbest gadgets imaginable, Max kept the world safe from everything except his gaffes.
Maxwell Smart remains one of Brooks' and Henry's funniest creations, enacted by the late, great Don Adams in the television series Get Smart (1965-70); The Producers and The Graduate would make them award-winning screenwriters.
Like seemingly every other TV hit, Get Smart is now updated and expanded to a feature film. Unlike most of them, this one works. It occurred to me during a screening of Get Smart that Brooks and Henry would appreciate what has been done with their creation. Then I saw their names listed as consultants for the movie. I'm guessing it isn't just a courtesy credit.
Get Smart is as giddily carefree about plot, and intent upon laughter, as the TV show. Not all the jokes click, but enough do. This could be attributed to Steve Carell's likable self-delusion as Max, convinced he's the greatest secret agent in the world (which isn't very different from Carell's delusion of boss greatness in The Office). But the reason runs deeper than that.
Other remakes of classic TV series are fashioned by filmmakers convinced that the original was junk and they can do it better. Everyone connected with Get Smart realizes the original was classic and can't be done better, so they want to do it right. Most of the time, they do.
Max isn't an agent when the movie begins; he's an intelligence analyst compiling reports so dry and superficially meaningless that he's the office joke. Only when CONTROL is infiltrated and decimated by a bomb blast does Max get his chance. Alongside Agent 99 (Anne Hathaway, tougher than Barbara Feldon's pre-women's lib version), Max must root out the mole and prevent an assassination attempt on a Bush-league president (James Caan).
That's it for the story, and that's fine. The key to get Smart isn't the mystery but Max's wacky deduction of it. When things get sticky, Max, like the filmmakers, returns to the source, relying on the TV series' hallmarks — the shoe phone, that snazzy Sunbeam convertible — that have been relegated to CONTROL museum pieces.
Carell has the perfectly blank expressions of doubt and confidence that Adams made famous, using the show's catchphrases in unforced situations. He never makes viewers forget Adams, but doesn't make them miss him, either. Hathaway, like Feldon, only needs to look gorgeous and does. Alan Arkin makes a comically harried Chief, and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson admirably preens as the perfect agent Max wants to be. We won't spoil the cameos, including the ever-disguised Agent 13, who should be used more.
If movies are to depend on TV for inspiration, then Get Smart does it with respectful flair. Would you believe it?
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs. tampabay.com/movies.