(CNN) -- Forty-three years ago, Mel Brooks and Buck Henry hatched a show about a not-so-smart intelligence agent constantly confounded by his own incompetence.
If that was considered funny a few years after the Bay of Pigs invasion, there's no reason to suppose it wouldn't be funny today.
And it is, too, but only some of the time.
If "Get Smart" the movie isn't on a par with those fondly remembered reruns, it's not because the Cold War is over or spy spoofs have been done to death, but because 25 minutes of inspired silliness doesn't automatically stretch to 110 minutes of sustained pleasure.
On the other hand, there is no question that Steve Carell is a natural for Maxwell Smart. He steps into Don Adams' phone shoes and square-shouldered suits as if clothes really do make the man.
But this incarnation is more than just a stuffed shirt. The new Max is still naïve and accident-prone (an intelligence analyst, he is promoted to field work after CONTROL's best agents are compromised by KAOS), but he can also surprise us with his ingenuity and expertise, even his physical prowess.
Somewhere along the line, "Get Smart" got smarter.
Presumably, this more heroic spin is intended to put some clear blue water between Agent 86 and incorrigible British super spy Austin Powers. Not that it would be difficult to pick either of them out of a lineup.
Powers is the swingin' love child of Sean Connery and Peter Sellers, whereas Smart is a far more prosaic American composite of Jack Benny, Jack Webb and Lou Costello.
By coincidence, Carell finds himself going head-to-head with Mike Myers' "The Love Guru" this weekend. Watch the stars of 'Get Smart' go unscripted »
Carell doesn't imitate Adams' sidelong diction. The old catchphrases are there, but you might easily miss them -- "by that much." He hits his groove for a handful of slapstick sequences: a surprisingly graceful mambo with a large Russian woman, and a rather belated parody of Catherine Zeta-Jones' laser-evasion gymnastics in "Entrapment" (with the mischievous addition of a rodent down his trousers).
As Agent 99, Smart's better half, Anne Hathaway, rolls her eyes a lot. She resembles Barbara Feldon -- for a while she even sports a Feldon bob and an elegant evening gown -- but with a modern twist.
She's a spikier customer than the old 99; less tolerant of Max's screw-ups. Hathaway gets to show brains and beauty and a mean karate kick, but she's essentially playing the straight man here; I guess it would be asking too much to allow her to be funny, too. iReport.com: Share your reviews of 'Get Smart'
Director Peter Segal and screenwriters Tom Astle and Matt Ember scarcely bother to link the set pieces together. "How did we get here?" asks Max, scratching his head. "It's not important," deadpans 99. Unfortunately, she is mistaken.
That stuff is important if you want to hold an audience for nearly two hours. Just because we've seen this story a hundred times before -- and we know you know we know it -- doesn't let you off the hook from telling it like you mean it.
More surprising is that Segal, a veteran of three Adam Sandler movies, is a pretty good action director. A climax involving a small plane, a runaway SUV, a train, and a nuclear bomb in the Walt Disney Concert Hall makes you wonder if John Woo was moonlighting on the second unit.
Too bad the satire isn't remotely as sharp. Lame potshots at the current administration are so stale the election can't come soon enough. "Get Smart" is an affectionate and fairly funny entertainment, but a thoroughly routine assignment.