Austin Powers in Goldmember

Starring:
  • Wayne
  • Harry Palmer
  • Not Pam Grier

 

Directed by a Real Focker

"You son of a bitch! I took a $20 million bath on Dieter, and you're still going to make Meet the Fockers?! Die, you whore!!!!"

Mike Myers' Cavalcade of European Accents

What is Mike Myers' fascination with Europe and her accents? Scotland has born the brunt of Myers' assaults ("If it's not Scottish, it's CRAAAAP!", "Scottish Soccer Hooligan Weekly," Fat Bastard), as has England Proper (modster Austin Powers, the gay British theater, Simon and his "droorings"), as has Ireland and her drinking songs. He even took on the Germans (The Dieter dream sequence with the "Touch My Monkey" jockstrap is top-rate). But Myers' most vicious campaign has trampled the Low Countries: Dr. Evil, the bald-scrotum Belgian; and now this most bizarre, fascinating, utterly compelling creation: Goldmember. As if it's not enough that the Netherlands had to endure a World Cup without the Orange, now Mike Myers blasts them with this dry-skinned, double-jointed, gilded-penised sex monger. I'm having trouble mustering a description of Goldmember—you've seen the commercials, I'm sure, getting just a taste of this creation that's the first he completely disappears into. In each of Myers' previous characters, we are cognizant of the fact that Mike Myersis performing a character with a goofy accent. But with Goldmember, Myers is barely recognizable, this character existing outside of the usual vernacular of the Austin Powers universe. Oh sure, there's still the sex gags and whatnot, but Goldmember sits at the Austin Powers table like an uninvited guest that everyone else is whispering about. This "Goldmember" character, whatever it is, reserves Austin Powers' place next to The Pink Panther franchise.

The star of that series, Peter Sellers, is generally recognized as the thinking man's modern slapstick genius—a man who can slip on a banana and still be too classy for the world of American Pie. Sellers was a character actor who did not need stunts to generate laughs. In the last twenty years, American comedy has become mostly a battle against itself to create the most outrageous stunts. Most American "comedies" are the execution of sight gags about bodily functions, the ante being upped from the belching of Animal House to the regular occurrence of semen brought about the Farrelly Brothers styling of Cameron Diaz' bangs. American slapstick has forgotten Sellers' lesson that it's not what you do, but how you do it.

For much of the past decade, Jim Carrey has been the most obvious choice as the torchbearer of American slapstick. I think back to 1999 when "Saturday Night Live" was still regaining its balance after the pratfall of the Sandler/Schneider years: Jim Carrey came on the show and did everyone's reoccurring characters better than the originals. He also turned a stupid little skit about a hot tub lifeguard into something memorable. But Carrey may have missed the boat: He has tried to sublimate his reckless abandon into dramatic energy lurking beneath a Jimmy Stewart veneer.

This leaves us with our only choice as Sellers' successor: Mike Myers, impresario of the fun and lucrative Austin Powers universe. For critics, Austin Powers is useful as a vehicle of debate over what-is-funny-and-what-is-not, but the ultimate importance of Austin Powers is that it reveals Mike Myers, not Jim Carrey, as the successor to Peter Sellers. And with Austin Powers at an end, we must now wait for a Stanley Kubrick to hand Myers his Dr. Strangelove.

I nominate Steven Spielberg, who still needs to atone for 1941. He gets a cameo in the Goldmember opening, which I won't spoil for you, only to say that it's finally confirmed that Crossroads is indeed the work of a Fembot. I'm not sure how to review this movie without erring in the way of Goldmember's own promotional campaign, in which all the good jokes are given away for free. I said in the Filmsnobs Summer Movie Preview that we weren't looking forward to this one, but the commercials gave me hope, so much so that my expectations were raised impossibly high. With such hype, any flat joke is punch to twig-and-berries. Myers loses too much focus on what made the original such an icon: The interplay between these caricatured, but ultimately recognizable characters. But I did laugh really, really hard more than a few times, and since I can't shake this "Goldmember" character from my mind, I'll give it a recommendation. Like you're not going to see it anyway.

Austin Powers has never really been about Austin Powers—it's about Dr. Evil and the family dynamic in his evil lair. Myers wrote the first one as a therapeutic mourning over the passing of his own father, and it's easy to see those issues play out in Dr. Evil. The Girls of Austin Powers (Liz Hurley, Heather Graham, Beyonce Knowles) have all been duds, making our time with Dr. Evil all the more valuable: the underlying sexual tension with Frau, the disrespect of No. 2, the strain of his relationship with Scott. The second film was saved by the creation of Mini-Me, precisely what Evil-ish fathers want from their children: a miniature replica of themselves. In this film, the original crew gets second billing, and it loses the Bond-villian spoof that made the original so funny. Rather than contemplate incredibly slow death traps with one inept guard, Myers raps with Mini-Me and talks like a trucker. Otherwise, it spends too much time spinning a plot that goes nowhere—telling that Dr. Evil's best moment comes when a balding Scott finally presents his father with sharks with frickin' laser beams attached to their heads. There's an amusing subplot concerning Dr. Evil at spy school, but nothing that compares to the best line of the entire series, when Dr. Evil tells Austin, "There's nothing more pathetic than an aging hipster. Kill him!"

As for Austin himself, he doesn't do much with what should have been the masterstroke: Michael Caine as Nigel Powers, Austin' dad. In fact, Michael Caine first became a star as Harry Palmer (an Austin Powers name if I've ever heard one), the nearsighted, pudgy superspy in The Ipcress File. American audiences immediately recognize Austin Powers as a Bond spoof, but its roots include more British comedy than anything, and this homage recognizes Caine as more than just "serious Oscar actor"—this and Stallone's Get Carter prove him a kick-ass Cockney. Unfortunately, as the plot gets complicated, Caine's entrance as the Dirty Old Man only hits intermittently.

However, Caine is funny and in on the joke, which is more than can be said for Miss Knowles. She's supposed to be Pam Grier, but she's way too skinny—not only would Foxy Brown kick her ass, but Sheba probably would too. Knowles apparently thinks that the costume is enough and lets her fro do her acting for her. She's too soulless, too weak, too MTV for the role: Michael Bolton crooning Percy Sledge's "When a Man Loves a Woman" is a better fit than Beyonce Knowles judo-chopping like Tamara Dobson's Cleopatra Jones. I doubt Knowles has even seen a Pam Grier movie (I'll bet she's too young for Jackie Brown.), and I know she hasn't seen Cleopatra Jones, not to mention my personal favorite, Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold (and Stella Stevens as the Dragon Lady!). Knowles seems like she's at a Halloween party with a seventies' theme, so Austin's Avenging Disco Godfather get-up really doesn't get the support it needs. Only two months after the inspiration of Undercover Brother, I kept wishing that Denise Richards would show up—when was the last time you heard that from a film critic? Knowles, I'm afraid, did zero research for her role.

And research, believe it or not, is part of what made this series so strong in the first place. American cinema has a grand canon of hippie movies, but the British liberation movement has remained largely untapped cinematically. Shawn Levy, author of Ready, Steady, Go!: The Smashing Rise and Giddy Fall of Swinging London, notes that the American hippie movement, as much as it proclaimed "free love" and whatnot, was really about separation, dividing the generations along the fault line of Vietnam, the subtext of antiwar protests involving a rebellion against the shirt-and-tie fifties. The British mod movement, Levy postulates, was more about inclusion: the suit-and-tie style of the mods allowed one to easily be cast as a banker by day and club-hopper by night without even a change of uniform. American youth rebelled against parents and responsibility, so the argument goes, where the British movement was against squares of all ages and classes. As Levy told Terri Gross on "Fresh Air," the brilliance of Austin Powers is that it captures the spirit of the era in the style of the era. Obviously Myers and director Jay Roach have its affection: The close-ups, the stop-frames, the wild colors—they get it all, wrapping the Bond-spoof plot around this style.

And it works. For the most part. But all films like this are going to misfire pretty often. The method is more Zuckers than Farrellys. The Farrellys fire their comedy like a bazooka: They buy time to jostle to get in position for the big blast. The Zuckers are more like machine guns: They spray as many jokes as possible and hope more hit the target than not. The first Austin Powers movie didn't really find legs until video release, and this one too will be better judged over a few beers and a group of friends on a Friday night couch. But I will give Myers the benefit of the doubt because, not only does he labor for the audience, he respects us, witness the $20 million bath he took on Dieter because the screenplay, which he wrote, sucked. Goldmember is far too randy for a PG-13, but there's a lot less poop jokes than the second, and even the horribly unfunny Fat Bastard scores when Myers sends-up wire-assisted fight scenes in a way none of the dozens of Matrix spoofs have yet managed. Consider me satisfied until Myers gets his immortal film, and if James Lipton is willing to give him a two-hour "Inside the Actor's Studio" (in which he told mimicked Lipton, "And then......you drank poop."), then I'm convinced he'll get his Dr. Strangelove.

The Pitch:
1 Dr. No
Plus
1 Peter Sellers
Equals
 
3 Austin Powers in Goldmember
See It For:
Michael Caine with the hookers Harvey ordered for the 2000 Miramax post-Oscar party.