Cast as newbie agent Maxwell Smart in this origin myth of the cult TV show, Steve Carell—the man studio bosses dream of at night—is still searching for the knockout role that fits, but Smart’s suits come yards closer than Bruce’s almighty robes. Tom J. Astle and Matt Ember’s script is fine, but its few chuckles are drowned out by action sequences that—surprisingly—are the flick’s best bits, particularly an aerial chase where parachutes are shredded like coleslaw. Director Peter Segal motors along with just enough explosions to distract us from realizing that there’s not a single huge belly laugh, and as Agent 99, Anne Hathaway is a tough, brainy bombshell not above flashing her gams if it’ll get them closer to KAOS.
Agent 99 and Smart have to stop KAOS, headed by a snide Terence Stamp, from detonating their nukes across America. While the President reads “Goodnight Moon” to kindergartners, they’re in a Russian bakery hunting yellowcake (both kinds). We don’t buy their romantic spark, but Hathaway and Carell enjoy the hell out of each other; their dynamic is of two talents trying to top the other. And what this comedy does right, even if it doesn’t do it loudly, is that it lets them. With his sincere ferret features as blank as Buster Keaton’s, Carell is no suave impresario like Agent 23 (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson). But he’s no buffoon. In one sequence where Hathaway slinks catlike through deadly laser beams, we discover he can wrangle himself into the splits—he’s no Mary Lou Retton, but he survives. Carell increasingly reminds me of what Pauline Kael wrote of Steve Martin, that when other comedians would announce they could tap dance, the joke was that they’d fall flat on their keister. Martin, however, would glide like Fred Astaire. Here, Carell literally does the same in a bit where he invites the largest girl at the party out on the floor. She’s big, yet moved by his squared-away confidence she whirls and high kicks—not without effort, but with passion. At the climax, she readies herself to leap into his arms. Mike Myers across the multiplex would have her flatten him like a pancake, but Carell triumphantly holds her aloft, permitting himself only one small furrow of concern as he cradles her to the ground in a deep dip, then sets her free with a friendly nod. (Amy Nicholson)