Saturday, 26 January 2013

COMEDY: Austin Powers in Goldmember (2002)

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Austin Powers in Goldmember (USA, 2002)
Directed by Jay Roach
Starring Mike Myers, Beyoncé Knowles, Michael York, Michael Caine

Considering the sharp decline in quality between the first and second Austin Powers films, you'd be more than forgiven for going into Goldmember with the lowest possible expectations. Not only are good threequels genuinely rare, but comedy sequels are often driven by a need to milk the original jokes for as long as possible, rather than bring in anything new to move the characters forward.

For the most part, our expectations are justified: Austin Powers in Goldmember is a really bad comedy which only cements our disappointment at how far the series has fallen since International Man of Mystery. It is in essence a 90-minute exercise in wringing every last drop of humour out from the characters, the problem being that after The Spy Who Shagged Me, there wasn't anything left. But in spite of everything, it is a very marginal improvement on its predecessor, if only because it isn't quite as wretchedly mean-spirited.
One of the big debates that film fans often have is about self-awareness. If a bad film knows that it's bad, is that better or worse than a film which isn't aware of how terrible it is? In the past I've defended films such as Flash Gordon which triumphantly embrace their ridiculous elements. I've even stuck up for George Lucas (hard as that may be), arguing that he isn't aware of how terrifyingly idiotic he is, and that therefore even the worst moments of the Star Wars prequels aren't as painful as the worst excesses of Michael Bay.
I raise this question because Goldmember stakes a lot of its appeal on self-parody. It's as though Jay Roach and Mike Myers were aware of how little there was left in the tank with this series, and tried to make up for it by taking the piss out of themselves. The whole opening sequence re-imagines the series as if it was a Hollywood blockbuster, with Tom Cruise doing one of his early self-deprecating cameos as the big-screen Austin. The whole film is something of a cameo-fest, with Kevin Spacey, Danny DeVito and even John Travolta turning up - and in this early section, it's kind of funny.
The problem, however, is that Goldmember never really commits to the self-parody. Sometimes it wants to follow through with the self-deprecation, making jokes about shoddy wire work and the series' continuity. But other times it pulls back from this and wants to be as self-contained as the other films, mining the same tired jokes with diminishing returns and bot a hint of irony. Put simply, if you want to be self-aware, you have to be self-aware all the time, and just saying something's a self-parody doesn't work if you're not consciously trying to break free from the jokes that you're parodying.
There is even an inconsistency when the film tries to match the first film and send up the Bond series. There are a few moments in which the jokes really work, the best being Michael Caine's scene with the henchman. Caine talks to the henchmen surrounding him about how generic convention means they are doomed to die, saying to one "you haven't even got a name tag" and that they may as well just give up rather than have him fight them. It's a neat little joke which reflects the jokes about henchmen in International Man of Mystery, bringing the series full circle and making us feel that some thought did go into this.
Unfortunately gags of this calibre are few and far between, and the film makes precious little effort with the rest of its Bond trappings. There's plenty of clichéd disco dancing to remind us that we're in the 1970s now, but there's no effort made to use Beyoncé's character to send up either Blaxpoitation or the Bond films that assimilated it, like Live and Let Die. Goldmember could have been an interesting synthesis of Goldfinger and Francisco Scaramanga, but he's far more disgusting than funny, ending up as just a lazy Dutch stereotype with all the old jokes about sex and drugs.
This disappointment only goes to show how by-the-numbers the series has become, and how far removed it is from the often insightful first instalment. Even when the film consciously references Bond, such as the sumo scene halfway through, there is no effort made to tie the jokes to the characters. Even at its most embarrassing and predictable, the Bond series still gave us characters with a purpose, even if that purpose was stupid or made little sense. Goldmember feels constantly in search of an author or plot, with characters wandering around wondering why they exist besides the money involved.
On top of that, the film blatantly recycles jokes from both International Man of Mystery and The Spy Who Shagged Me. We get another shadow puppet joke, something that was run into the ground in the previous film; it has one good moment involving the 'birth' of Mini-Me, but nothing else. Mini-Me himself still gets a rum deal, constantly being punched and kicked around for no real reason other than a mean-spirited belief that little people are inherently funny. Roach is so desperate for a laugh that he even cuts to clips from the first two films, and just disguising them as flashbacks doesn't distract from how cheap he's being.
What we are left with is not so much a plot as a series of sketches. Different characters wander in and out, jokes are made with varying degrees of success, and after 90 minutes, it stops. After its promising opening the film rises and falls on each scene, settling into a shapeless universe in which nothing makes sense and no attempt is made to connect any one scene to another beyond lazy exposition. I'd call this approach contempt, if the film weren't so dull that it doesn't deserve anyone getting angry about it.

What makes Goldmember so disappointing, like its predecessor, is that there are any number of moments that could have worked with a little more effort. The sub-plot about Scott turning evil could have been developed into a proper storyline, giving Austin and Dr. Evil a reason to team up and for the film to examine their similarities, a la Holmes and Moriarty. The film could have made more of Goldmember's predicament, in a variation on the 'lost mojo' plot of the second film. But the whole thing is so episodic and lazy that every time a good idea or opportunity comes along, it's either instantly shot down or swept to one side as the next attempt at a joke starts.
On top of all that, the film is racially insensitive. We can just about excuse the characterisation of Goldmember: if nothing else, the film does occasionally make him so gross that he departs from an exact stereotype of Dutch people and becomes something more bizarre. But the scene with the Japanese twins is completely crass and unacceptable, to the point that when Fat Bastard arrives on screen, we're immensely grateful. While the film isn't as overtly mean-spirited as The Spy Who Shagged Me (perhaps because Bastard has less to do in it), there is a nasty, exploitative undercurrent to it which leaves a sour taste in the mouth.
The performances in Goldmember range from the capable to the completely pointless. Michael York remains game as Basil Exposition, even if he has less to do than usual, and Michael Caine acquits himself perfectly well considering what he has to work with. Mike Myers is hit-and-miss, with Dr. Evil being enjoyable, Austin being annoying and Goldmember being... Goldmember. Elsewhere Robert Wagner is decent, Beyoncé Knowles is wooden and Seth Green isn't as funny or as convincing as he is the first two films.
Austin Powers in Goldmember is a disappointing final instalment of a franchise that should have been restricted to one film. While it marginally improves on the tone of The Spy Who Shagged Me, it remains a lazy, episodic mess that can't decide how self-aware it wants to be, or even whether it wants to have a plot or not. Myers remains a talented individual, as proven by his work in the Shrek series around the same time, but no amount of gold can make up for the fact that Goldmember is pretty pants.

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