When a comedy film’s catchphrases, dialogue and best jokes (both verbal and physical) have been inducted into the popular culture hall of fame and subsequently repeated ad nauseam over a number of years, it becomes difficult to remember that there was a brief moment when it was all so fresh, and funny, and the film made you and many, many others laugh uproariously.
Watching Austin Powers: International Man Of Mystery fifteen years or so after its initial release, it’s fascinating to consider the extent that Mike Myers’ creation(s) have subsequently managed to burrow their way into the wider public consciousness. How many internet memes have you seen? How many people have you heard shout “Oh beehaaave!” or “Yeah baby!” in an Austin Powers voice over the years? How many friends have impersonated Dr Evil in a bar or classroom or workplace? How many times have you yourself held your little finger up to your mouth and whispered mischievously “one milllllion dollars”?
I watched the film last week with my wife. It was like seeing an old friend, albeit one that you used to have much more in common with. An old friend who used to make you laugh a lot, but you’ve since changed over the ensuing years and drifted apart somewhat, so spending the evening going over the same old jokes and the same old stories isn’t quite as appealing as it used to be. But it’s still fun … to a certain extent.
My wife, however, had never seen an Austin Powers film before. Upon learning about this fact for the first time I went through the usual motions of throwing plates at the wall, stomping my feet on the Ikea rug, kicking the waste paper basket into the air and exclaiming in a loud voice “whadddyameanyou’veneverseenaustinpowers!” before eventually realizing there’s actually nothing out of the ordinary about that whatsoever. Still, at the first available opportunity – i.e. within five minutes – I put the DVD on. (Funny how well you can know someone and yet there’s still so much to find out. I’ve known my wife for six years and so there are probably lots and lots of films I like that she hasn’t seen, and vice versa. But I look forward to forcing her to miss her favourite television shows repeatedly in order to rectify any glaring omissions over the years to come.)
She said she had never really been interested enough to watch it, and also had been put off by the amount of people over the years that had quoted the dialogue and shared the in-jokes over and over again. When I’m on the outside of a shared joke, the more I hear it the more inclined I am to avoid the source, as opposed to finding out exactly why it’s so funny, so I completely understand why my wife ignored the film for so many years. I had just assumed that every time she laughed after I said “Let me tell you a story about a man named ssshhhh” she knew where it came from originally. Midway through the movie, when Dr Evil uttered the line, she looked at me and flatly stated with clear disappointment: “so that’s where you got it from”. I couldn’t bring myself to tell her that the same applies to roughly 85% of anything remotely witty I ever say or do.
Still, as a first time viewer, my wife’s reaction reminded me just how funny Austin Powers: International Man Of Mystery is. Or was. Fifteen years ago I remember sitting in a cinema during the opening dance number, in which Powers is chased through the swinging 60s streets of London by a Beatlemania-style crowd before leading a procession of marching band, marionettes and cartwheeling policemen. The audience was in hysterics and the laughter didn’t let up for the next hour and a half.
To recap on the plot, briefly: Austin Powers (Myers) is a fashion photographer / scenester in the mid-to-late 1960s who moonlights as a gentleman spy for “British Intelligence”. After his nemesis Dr Evil (also Myers) cryogenically freezes himself in space Powers is also frozen, only for the pair to do battle once again when thawed in the late 1990s.
It’s the way that Myers mines the world of James Bond and other spy films so accurately that makes this spoof work well; while some of the jokes are necessary but a little obvious, like the lampooning of Bond’s post-kill one-liners or the double-entendre names given to the femme fatales, there are many more that really do hit the mark. When Dr Evil’s captures Powers and sidekick Vanessa Kensington (played by Liz Hurley and Liz Hurley’s plummy accent) and leaves them to die at the hands of some ‘ill-tempered sea bass’, for example, he decides not to watch their deaths, much to the chagrin of his son Scott (Seth Green). ‘No-no-no,’ says Evil, ‘I’m going to leave them alone and not actually witness them dying, I’m just gonna assume it all went to plan. What?’
Then there’s the inspired decision to show us a glimpse into the secret lives of Dr Evil’s henchmen, who are mourned by family and friends (including a rather odd cameo by Rob Lowe), not to mention the excellent spoofs of Bond villains Oddjob (Random Task – Joe Son) and Rosa Klebb (Frau Farbissina – Mindy Sterling). Then there’s Dr Evil himself – a superb comic rendition of Bond’s long-time nemesis Blofeld. Some would say the Bond universe is ridiculous enough as it is, but Myers’s spoofing is good natured, warm, and you might even describe it as ‘loving’.
But Austin Powers: International Man Of Mystery is more than just a simple spoof. When it isn’t poking fun at the Bond franchise, it’s best moments arguably come in what it does with the characters next. In Dr Evil’s case there is the ongoing concern of his relationship with wayward son Scott, with the pair memorably attending a group therapy session hosted by Carrie Fisher. And writer Myers / director Jay Roach clearly have a lot of fun (a little too much, maybe) with the fish-out-of-water idea – Dr Evil and Powers both struggle with modern life after being frozen for three decades. When Powers watches a DVD in Las Vegas to catch up on what he has missed he memorably exclaims “Yeah…and I can’t believe Liberace was gay!”
It also sends the sixties up successfully; the idea that everyone in London was lost in a kind of Carnaby Street psychedelic party for two years is patently ridiculous, but Myers isn’t afraid to pull every cliche out in the book as he sends up the city. The fake band created for
As with Myers’s previous comedy, So I Married An Axe Murderer, silliness is the order of the day. Myers has often cited the influence of his own mother and father – both originally from Liverpool in England – on his comedic style, and his accounts of childhood suggest plenty of daft behaviour in the family home. He has also bemoaned the fact that silliness is looked down upon by some superior comics in interviews. (The idea that silliness should be taken more seriously is one I wholeheartedly endorse.) There are some brilliant, throwaway and daft moments in this film, such as Powers getting caught in a narrow corridor trying to execute a three-point turn, and a scene where a henchman gets mowed down by an extremely slow-moving steamroller never fails to make me smile.
If anything, Austin Powers: International Man Of Mystery has become a victim of its own success. The film’s jokes have been repeated so often they have lost some of their original spark, but there are so many of them that the film still stands up to repeated viewings (and I must have watched this movie four or five times now) – as indeed do the two sequels that have appeared to date. It helps that everyone buys in to Myers’ creations, and the film hosts a series of memorable appearances by those in supporting roles and cameos: Fisher, Green, Sterling, Hurley, Will Ferrell, Robert Wagner, Christian Slater and Tom Arnold all have a moment or two to shine. But it’s Myers who takes centre stage, of course, gurning through the film while playing the joint roles of Powers and Dr Evil; the latter in particular is one of the best comic creations period: an all-singing, all-dancing camp panto villain with bells on. It’s no wonder he gets just as much screen time as the film’s hero.
Directed by: Jay Roach
Written by: Mike Myers
Starring: Mike Myers, Elizabeth Hurley, Seth Green
Running Time: 90 Minutes