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April 19, 2014

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Austin Powers, The Spy Who Shagged Me
(Reviewed June 1, 1999)
Rating: Not worthy of a star
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There is often a satirical edge to Mike Myers's comic speciality, which is characters who are trying and mostly failing to be cool. At some level, he understands the foolishness and moral poverty of the “cool” ideal and loves to laugh at those whose self-presentation falls pathetically short of their own self-image. But there is no malice in his portrayals of lovable losers like Wayne of the two Wayne's Worlds and Austin Powers, now returned in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me—directed, as the original was, by Jay Roach. In fact, both Wayne and Austin turn out to be complete winners. By a process of postmodern double irony (irony, that is, about being ironic), both Waynes and, now, both Austins come out looking very cool indeed. It's a pity. Satirical malice has an important function to fill in terms of moral education, but satire in the 1990s has become almost a lost art.

Admittedly, the new Austin Powers is often very funny. Myers plays not only the swinging secret agent, mentally though not physically stuck in the 1960s, and his nemesis, Dr Evil, but also a new bad guy, Dr. Evil's Scottish henchman, Fat Bastard, a role which gives him plenty of opportunities for the gross-out jokes which the Farrelly brothers have made so popular in movies like Kingpin and Something About Mary. As a practitioner of adolescent humor, Myers, who co-wrote the screenplay with Michael McCullers, is more subtle than the Farrellys (which, like being more tasteful than the Farrellys, is not hard to be), but he can also be, as in two long sequences built around puns, celebrity cameos and synonyms for the male sex organ, more tedious. He is still the brilliant sketch-comedian of “Saturday Night Live” and some of his jokes are good and some are less good, but his overall comic vision is weak.

Weak but not uninteresting. For starters, it is remarkable that he has one at all. The Farrellys, naturally do not, and Woody Allen hardly does anymore. Joke writers who try to move up to feature-length material usually end up just stringing jokes together on the flimsiest of pretexts. Myers does that too, but a larger purpose does emerge, which is a rehabilitation of the 1960s under the guise of satirizing them. Sure they wore ridiculous clothes and indulged in ridiculous slang, and their attitudes towards sex and drugs were excessively lax. The 60s dolly bird, here represented by Felicity Shagwell (Heather Graham) is about as un-p.c. as she can be and another potential source of satire. Yet the film insists on the essential innocence of the period's self-liberations which makes even the rock-star avatars of its spirit worthy of respect. Like Powers himself, the decade (or the media mythology about it) is both ludicrous and lovable.

The first Austin Powers made this point directly when it gave Dr Evil the voice of 60s revisionism. “Freedom failed,” he says, thus neatly summing up the justification for his name. As the publicity material for Austin II puts it, “Nothing is more evil than a square, baby”—which tells you about its attitude as much to evil as to squares. The International Man of Mystery, by contrast, speaks up not only for the innocence but even for the essential rightness of liberation and the spirit behind all the free love and the swinging and the parties that now seem to so many to be somehow tainted with Evil. Though in the 1990s we may do things (especially sexual things) differently, the purpose of winning this “freedom” remains valid. To it we have belatedly added responsibility, says Powers, and so now we have the best of both worlds. There is some reason for thinking that this is, in fact, what most Americans think.

Even conservatives, for example, often feel constrained to protest that they are as implacably opposed to nostalgia for the “Father Knows Best” world before 1965 as they are to the sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll that came after that date. No one is supposed to want to turn the clock back. Yet the nostalgia of the 60s advocates, like Mike Myers, is bold and unashamed of itself. Not only is he nostalgic for swinging London and Carnaby Street and go-go girls and psychedelia and (above all) no-fault sex, he is even nostalgic for Britain as a world power and the lurid fables of good and evil, spun off from the Cold War, that have made the James Bond films the institution they have become. The campy Bond villains like Dr. No and Goldfinger were early examples of evil conceived of as comic eccentricity, which made them an essential element in the construction of the post-modern sensibility, as well as what made Dr. Evil possible 35 years on.

Now, of course, Dr. Evil is at least as lovable as Austin Powers himself. In his newest incarnation he is more than ever the harried paterfamilias (Father Knows Worst) trying to slap down the overweening ambition of Number Two (Robert Wagner in the 1990s, Rob Lowe in the 1960s) while intervening to quell the deadly sibling rivalry between his troubled teenage son, Scott Evil (Seth Green) and his one-eighth scale clone, Mini-me (Verne Troyer). Inspired by a sip of Austin Powers's “mojo”—a vial of which Fat Bastard filches from the cryogenically frozen secret agent and brings back from the 1960s—he even has a fling with his sexually ambiguous henchwoman, Frau Farbissina (Mindy Sterling). It doesn't work out. And in what are perhaps the funniest passages in the movie, he and Scott appear together on a Jerry Springer show (Springer appearing as himself) titled “My Father is Evil and Wants to Take Over the World”—just another dysfunctional family.

Small wonder that the satire, like Dr. Evil's death-laser, only strikes the woundless air. Like other forms of moral discourse, satire depends on a robust sense of good and evil, right and wrong, truth and falsehood, the virtuous and the corrupt,—a sense which has been continually degraded since the 1960s by the combination of therapeutic modes of thought and the ridicule of the “cool” who, like Austin Powers, cannot escape the chains of 60s-style liberation. In a typical bit of post-modern ironizing, which is what has come to take the place of satire, Mike Myers makes fun of both these things while preserving intact their attitude of contempt for most if not all forms of moral earnestness. It is a movie which is both funny and very much attuned to the temper of our times, so it will probably make even more money than the first Austin Powers did. Alas.




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