You’re Not Going to Believe This, But “Get Smart” Is Funny.

Get Smart Steve Carell Anne Hathaway

A nearly immutable law says that movies made from old TV sitcoms suck. So when Get Smart opened in summer 2008, I stayed away. It had cheap exploitation written all over it, and my good feelings about Steve Carell and Anne Hathaway weren’t enough to override my default setting. Even an amusing clip didn’t get me into the theater; I knew that the clip, which was clever and subtle, had to be unrepresentative.

But you know how when you flip randomly to a cable channel and through happenstance a movie is just about to begin, so you’ll be able to get in on the ground floor, and it’s a movie that has just enough going for it (despite your low expectations) that you’re willing to give it five minutes to prove you wrong? That happened.

One of the smartest choices the movie makes is to make Maxwell Smart smart. In the old sitcom, Don Adams was a buffoon, an idiotic jerk who foiled dastardly plots by bumbling into them. (There may have been an unacknowledged debt to Inspector Clouseau going on there.) But Steve Carell’s Maxwell Smart is a brilliant (if geeky) intelligence analyst who yearns to be an agent in the field, gets his chance, and comes through. This Maxwell Smart is a freshly and fully conceived comedic character, not a catchphrase-bot. He’s also not a retread of Carell’s Michael Scott from The Office, although I expected him to be.

Anne Hathaway’s performance as Agent 99 matches Carell’s. A very funny “dynamic” goes on between them, as their cover — they pretend to be a married couple — starts to feel so real to them that they fall into dysfunctional patterns with one another. Hathaway, by the way, is jaw-droppingly gorgeous in this film.

I believed, for some reason, that the movie got poor reviews when it opened. Maybe my expectation of mediocrity was so strong that I just assumed the general press confirmed it. But looking at the reviews now, I see that a number of them were quite positive and perceptive. Roger Ebert gave it three-and-a-half stars. The excellent J. Hoberman in The Village Voice liked the movie a lot. Salon’s Stephanie Zacharek called the film “a surprisingly smart comedy.”

You do have to give the movie about ten minutes to get fully up to comedic speed, but once it does, it maintains it. The good jokes come at you on all levels, subtle, broad, intellectual, physical, character-based, action-based, political, psychological. What all the jokes have in common is that none of them insults your intelligence. How the hell did that happen?

Not only is the movie a better one than I thought it was; it also did better. It grossed $230 million worldwide on an $80 million investment. And I see that a sequel, Get Smart 2, which will reunite Carell and Hathaway (and Alan Arkin, as The Chief), is in development for 2011. Yay.

get smart Steve Carell Anne Hathaway 2

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