What did spy movies look like before James Bond? Was there actual spying going on? It’s hard to credit the idea of spy movie these days without glamorous locations, mouth-watering women and enough car chases and explosions to make espionage synonymous with a demolition derby. Before Bond, spies were all Smiley’s People. Nowadays, even comedy spy movies come with artillery. Get Smart, based on the Sixties TV show of the same name, can’t be Austin Powers again after three Austin Powers movies, so instead it opts to be True Lies with more laughs (and less racism). It’s all in the best tradition of spies who don’t spy.
Plot, as always in comedy, is secondary. Get Smart is a spy movie. There are good guys and there are bad guys. The bad guys are trying to blow up the president and it’s up to the good guys to stop them. To do this, the good guys must: travel to a variety of exotic locations; jump out of aircraft while in mid-air; blow an ungodly amount of shit up; sleep with each other (this, presuming one of the good guys is a man and the other is a woman); drive fast cars; jump from fast cars; do 99% of the above at the Last Possible Moment… and look good while doing it (the bad guys should be preferably ugly, bald, Middle Eastern or Terence Stamp).
Steve Carell, who looks like a lawyer, is well-suited to smart comedy. He’s made his career thus far on the basis that he’s not Jim Carrey or Robin Williams, and while he doesn’t have the I-might-just-kill-somebody edge of either of those actors, you don’t figure he might just kill somebody (which is always a plus). Carell plays Maxwell Smart as a bit nebbish, but not quite a nerd. It’s a sideways step from his role as The 40 Year-Old Virgin: not quite flinging aside the quietly hurt looks he does so well or the air of maligned dignity he carries with him; more re-directing those qualities into someone who you might share a commute with (as opposed to someone who dreams of commuting aboard the Starship Enterprise).
Anna Hathaway breaks out a pair of legs that could end the War on Terror, and probably says something as well (kidding!). Having been crowned the Next Julia Roberts (in a long line of next Julia Roberts’) a while back, her career is taking shape now with a nice mixture of drama, comedy and Jane Austen. She makes the right decision in Get Smart never to play it too tough even when she’s mad at Max (the old Julia Roberts could learn a thing or two here) and she seems relaxed and in control as the Sexy Girl in a comedy spy movie. Hathaway doesn’t do shrill. The movie even finds time for her to act a little when her character talks about having undergone plastic surgery (“I used to look like my mom”). All credit to an actress who makes that line affecting even when the context is absurd.
The rest of the cast is: The Rock (all smiles), Terence Stamp (all sneers), Alan Arkin and the guy who plays Hiro in Heroes. They all do fine and Arkin is still the best crotchety old man in show-business. The action is handled like the director watched Point Break and Entrapment and pinched the best bits – but plagiarism isn’t such an issue when you’re making a spy spoof. What matters is that the movie doesn’t play like Mike Myers had anything to do with it.
As much as spy movies have left spying behind, recent comedy (post-Myers) hasn’t had much to do with laughs. That Get Smart is funny is down to the fact that Steve Carell doesn’t do fart gags (or dick jokes, or any of the other dross that’s Myers’ stock-in-trade). Get Smart is a movie with jokes to amuse the over-12s, made with a clear love for the James Bond of From Russia with Love and Dr. No. It’s not a comedy of searing wit or irony (Carell does show his bare ass to the world), but faced with The Guru as the only other big-budget comedy this summer – isn’t intelligence preferable to a bomb?