Saturday, April 5, 2014

Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery


Madame Rose, my publicist, Joseph, my manager, and I all boarded a chartered Lear jet for my trip to Rancho Mirage where I would soon become the latest celebrity to enter the fabled halls of the Betty Ford Clinic. Chemical dependency has become so chic these days that I was really looking forward to my time hobnobbing with my fellow stars as we shared intimate little secrets in exclusive twelve step groups. We landed at the airport and were met by Miguel, my chauffeur, with a rented limousine and fresh margaritas for the trip to my new temporary home.

My arrival at Betty Ford, however, was a nightmare. Despite my explicit instructions, the Charlie Sheen suite was already occupied by some hideous little gnome with buck teeth and bad hair named Hallie Eisenberg; to add insult to injury, the clinic staff claimed never to have heard of me and to have no knowledge of my arrival. They had the effrontery to tell me that they were booked solid and would not be able to accommodate my needs. Joseph got on the phone with his staff and soon it became apparent that his adenoidal assistant had made a clerical error and had booked me into the Benny Ford clinic in Toledo Ohio instead. There was nothing for it but to return to the airport and catch the next plane east.

On the journey, I had the chance to sit back and watch Mike Myer's first foray into the world of sixties spy spoofery, Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery. This 1997 release was only modestly successful in its initial run. However, it developed a wide following on home video, becoming a pop culture phenomenon. As a result, the sequel, Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, became a bona fide blockbuster two years later. The characters and certain catch phrases have become instantly recognizable and a second sequel, apparently starring every midget in the western hemisphere, is due later this year.

Austin Powers (Myers) is a British secret agent in the James Bond tradition who, as the film opens, is reveling in the swinging London scene of the mid-60s. In a seemingly endless sequence, we see glimpses of a stylized Carnaby Street/British Invasion/Whiskey-A-Go-Go London gone wild which culminates in a confrontation with an evil super villain, Dr. Evil (also Myers), modeled on Blofeld from the early Bond films (complete with cat). Dr. Evil escapes and has himself cryogenically frozen in space, to come back when the world will be safer for his nefarious plans. Powers leaves his Emma Peel type partner, Mrs. Kensington (Mimi Rogers) and agrees to be frozen as well so he'll be ready to take on Dr. Evil when he returns.

Flash forward to present day. Dr. Evil returns from space so Basil Exposition (how pythonesque), head of British Intelligence (Michael York), thaws Austin out. This groovy guy from Swinging London has some trouble adjusting to modern mores, especially after teaming up with Mrs. Kensington's daughter, Vanessa (Elizabeth Hurley). She's just not into casual shagging on rotating circular beds. Our two heroes head off to Las Vegas where Dr. Evil, his number two (Robert Wagner), other assorted cronies and an unexpected teenage son (Seth Green)are planning world domination. There follows a lot of spoofs of Bond situations including the casino game and attack, the encounter with the sexy bad girl (Fabiana Udenio), the romancing of the leading lady, the escape from the elaborate death trap, and the blowing up of the evil hideout in the midst of the desert.

The film is amusing, occasionally funny, but rarely reaches the heights of comic absurdity to which it aspires. The major reason for this is the character of Austin. His tics, mannerisms, and sixties anachronisms grate and after twenty minutes or so, he becomes unspeakably dull. Dr. Evil, his nemesis, on the other hand, becomes more and more interesting over the course of the film and is all and all, much the funnier character. This leads to the film being off balance. It's a strange sort of thriller when you're rooting for the villain who must be defeated. The project isn't helped by its choice of leading lady. Miss Hurley is lovely to look at but is incredibly serious in a part that should have a certain amount of frothy good fun. She's not an actress who can pull off the delicate timing of being comic while playing a serious character. The supporting cast, on the other hand, has better luck. Robert Wagner, spoofing his own square jawed image, is a riot as number two as is Mindy Sterling as the Lotte Lenya inspired Frau Farbissina. Seth Green also has some great moments as the sullen son who has little interest or aptitude for the family business of evil.

The direction, by Jay Roach (Meet the Parents), is competent and he has the visual look of the early Bond epics down. There are also nods to The AvengersOur Man Flint and Blow Up, amongst other icons of 60s cinema and television. The use of period music, including a quick cameo by Burt Bacharach, is also a kick. The writing, by Myers, is uneven. Much of it plays like sketch comedy strung together rather than organic comedy of situation, character and place. A lot of the jokes are fairly juvenile and deal with the usual stock in trades of a comedian running out of ideas, bodily functions and anatomy.

The DVD, in addition to the film, contains a number of extras including a commentary track, a number of cut sequences (most of them cut for good reason or small bits cut for pacing), and the original concept for the ending (lifted from You Only Live Twice). The color and sound transfer are excellent.

Machine gun toting Fembots. British matron attack. Gratuitous Tom Arnold. Bad blackjack playing. Tourist disguises. Hot tubbing. Gratuitous Swedish penile pump. Hungry sea bass. Escape by dental floss.

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