Monday, 17 September 2012

COMEDY: Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997)

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Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (USA, 1997)
Directed by Jay Roach
Starring Mike Myers, Liz Hurley, Michael York, Mindy Sterling 

Much like the Bond series which it parodies, the Austin Powers series has become an indelible part of popular culture. There's barely anyone who grew up in the 1990s who can't quote from it, and even people who've never seen the film smile knowingly at the mention of "Yeah, baby!" or "Oh, behave!". And while Bond has proved many times that influence and longevity are not guarantees of quality, International Man of Mystery has aged surprisingly well compared to other spy parodies in the same vein.
Austin Powers is a meeting point between British and North American humour, reflected in Mike Myers' dual British-Canadian citizenship. Having grown up with Monty Python and the Carry On series, Myers was better placed than most American comedians to create a spoof of Bond, or indeed the many other 1960s spy films and TV series like The Avengers and Secret Agent, a.k.a. Danger Man. There was also renewed public interest in the Bond series following its successful re-launch with Goldeneye. Pierce Brosnan's neo-classical Bond, which mixed 1960s puns with 1990s product placement, set things up nicely for Myers to come in and poke fun at aspects that fans young and old would know only too well.
Considering that Myers cut his teeth on Saturday Night Live, you could be forgiven for expecting a film that is little more than a series of sketches. But just as Wayne's World still ranks as one of the best films to come from SNL, so Myers and director Jay Roach deserve credit for giving us a half-decent narrative. The film is never consistently funny, with peaks and troughs throughout its 90-minute running time, but for the most part it feels like it is moving towards something rather than just waiting for a laugh.
For fans of the Bond series, whether genuinely or ironically, International Man of Mystery is chock full of references to the films, and lovingly parodies many aspects which have come to define the character. The most obvious is the sexually suggestive names, with the character Alotta Fagina nodding both to Famke Janssen's character in Goldeneye and the likes of Pussy Galore and Plenty O'Toole. Having a character so blatantly named raises a laugh, but also a feeling of embarrassment - a feeling of: "How did we let them get away with that?"
While the Roger Moore era is in the firing line in terms of sexual overtones, the main target of Austin Powers is the Connery era. The sets borrow heavily from the early days of the series, with the penthouse nodding to You Only Live Twice and the nuclear-related climax being lifted from Dr. No. The latter is also a possible reference to Daleks: Invasion Earth AD 2150, in which the Daleks attempt to drill out the Earth's core to turn the planet into a spaceship (just don't call it a Death Star).
There are also more general Bond parodies which strike a chord. Michael York does a brilliant job as Basil Exposition, parodying M's only real role in the series beyond being annoyed at Bond. Much is made of Austin's appearance, with his oversized teeth and seeming manhood problems sending up Connery's immeasurable sex appeal (even though Austin is equally irresistible). And while there's no Q figure in Austin's universe, the conversation about a certain Swedish object more than makes up for it. Besides, the film is already silly enough without throwing joke gadgets into the mix.
The big challenge for Austin Powers, or indeed for any spoof, is that the film needs to work as a believable and compelling story in itself. It's not enough for us to get the jokes in whatever order we see them: there has to be a logic from which they emanate which we can follow and bond with, even if that logic is rooted is something utterly stupid or absurd. As with The Princess Bride, the film is never entirely sure how far it wants to depart from convention, or whether its humour comes mainly from celebrating the ludicrous nature of Bond or looking down on it. This indecision, whether by Roach or Myers, makes the film far more uneven than it needs to be.
The film is at its funniest when it has the confidence to deconstruct the clichés of Bond. There are pockets of great surreal comedy throughout the film, most of them involving Dr. Evil going unknowingly over-the-top. The dreadful puns, laughing evilly for no reason, the overly elaborate and utterly inept means of imprisoning characters - all are handled with affectionate aplomb. Funniest of all is the group therapy scene, in which Dr. Evil recounts the most absurdly hilarious backstory to a therapist played by Carrie Fisher (oh, the irony).
Austin Powers is also strong when it approaches the world of spying from a smaller, more tangential angle. There are two instances in the film where a minor character, a henchman of some kind, is introduced and then bumped off - nothing unusual there. But the film then cuts to the family or friends of said henchman as they are informed of his death, with one being his wife and stepson, and the other his best friends waiting for him to show up for his stag night. These jokes are well-paced and witty, as well as doing much to convince us that we what we are seeing stretches beyond the four corners of the screen.
Unfortunately, these kinds of smart, insightful gags are sandwiched between swathes of dated gross-out jokes which go on far too long. The "Number 2" sequence, featuring Austin on the toilet, is funny in a fleeting, sub-American Pie way, as are the sight gags involving objects covering people's private parts. But while it's all fine and good on its own, this kind of humour becomes embarrassing when it's in the context of the other, smarter stuff. It's like a refined university student having to hang out with his teenage brother, who insists on making fart noises and shouting "boobs!" in the middle of seminars.
The plot of Austin Powers is also a little suspect. Having set up that Vanessa isn't the least bit charmed by Austin, they seem to hit it off pretty quickly. If this was intended as a send-up of Bond's romantic relationships, the film doesn't put enough effort into make this transition seem either credible or so incredible that it's funny. There's also surprisingly little attempt to use Austin's fish-out-of-water predicament to greater effect: there's a few jokes about him being out-of-date in the 1990s, but once he's become his old self the film carries on as if those scenes weren't all that important.
 
Ultimately the film rises and falls on the strengths of its jokes and the performers who deliver them. On the good side, Seth Green is funny as Dr. Evil's snarky son Scott, and Robert Wagner wrings everything he can out of his role as Number 2. On the bad side, Will Ferrell as usual isn't funny, with his passingly amusing joke about a badly burned minion being dragged out far too long. Liz Hurley acquits herself just about okay, though a lot of the time it seems like her audio has been dubbed - and not particularly well-dubbed at that.
Fortunately both of these niggles are redeemed by Myers, who handles his two roles with good timing and much charisma. His Dr. Evil is by far the more enjoyable performance, with more of the jokes hitting the mark and the costume tapping into everything that made Blofeld simultaneously sinister and ridiculous. Whatever questionable choices he made with later characters (like Fat Bastard and Goldmember), here he is immensely watchable.
 
Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery is a pretty good first instalment of what would become a trilogy. It's nothing like as consistent as it needs to be, with the film settling for broader, more scatological humour when its smarter stuff is far more funny and interesting. But Myers manages to keep the laughs coming over the 90 minutes, and Roach is on hand to keep it all looking and feeling like a film rather than a sketch show. It's not perfect, but as Get Smart and others have shown, it could have been a whole lot worse. 

Rating: 3.5/5
Verdict: Still pretty groovy

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