Fidelity to the source is probably not a fair criterion by which to judge a film based on an intermittently funny 1960s television show, but still. In taking agent Maxwell Smart out of the Cold War and into the new millennium, screenwriters Tom J. Astle and Matt Ember have retained all the easy signature jokes (“Sorry about that, Chief.” “Would you believe…” “Missed it by that much.”) but softened the lead character beyond recognition.
You can almost imagine the script conference at which someone insisted that Max needs a goal and a sympathetic backstory. And so the spy (Carell, who often seems to be shoe-phoning it in) has been transformed from a dense, self-regarding bumbler to a lovably klutzy but very smart intelligence analyst who dreams of being a field agent. When all of control’s operatives are compromised by a security breach, he gets his chance. Joining him in the field are sexy Agent 99 (Hathaway, trying gamely with weak material) and charming superspy Agent 23 (Johnson, whose comic gifts recall a bull in a china shop, only with better teeth).
Director Peter Segal (Tommy Boy, Anger Management) displays his usual middling feel for comedy, flatly presenting gags that seem as though more humor could be wrung out of them. The only real fun is watching old pros like Arkin (as the Chief) and Stamp (as evil Siegfried) sell material that doesn’t deserve the love they give it. There’s nothing terribly wrong here, but there’s nothing terribly right, either. Missed it by that much.