The internet is choked with nostalgia for the youth-oriented entertainments of the not-too-distant past. With Memory Wipe, The A.V. Club takes a look at some of our formative favorites with clearer eyes and asks that all-important question: Were they really that great to begin with?
I hate Austin Powers. I don’t mean Austin Powers: International Man Of Mystery, a movie I saw shortly after it debuted on May 2, 1997, while I was home from college, catching it with a group of friends and laughing our dirtweed-smoking asses off. Granted, I didn’t fall in love with Austin Powers the way I did Wayne’s World and the underrated Wayne’s World 2 (to compare it to Mike Myers’ other most successful franchise), nor in the way that so many others seemed to at the time. But I have fond and specific memories of that screening, and I’ve enjoyed subsequent Austin Powers viewings since—though mostly, only in small chunks caught on cable TV, usually while drinking and waiting for someone to get ready.
I also don’t mean I hate Austin Powers, the character as played by Mike Myers. I know there’s been a lot of negative reappraisal of Myers’ talents in these post-Love Guru years (I’ve contributed to some of it myself), but it’s become easy to forget what a comedy force he was in the ’90s. On Saturday Night Live, he was forever locked in a friendly arms race with his Wayne’s World partner Dana Carvey to see who could spawn more memorable characters and catchphrases every single week. Thanks to all his political and celebrity impersonations, Carvey definitely got more of the spotlight, but Myers had him beat in originality. Put the Church Lady and Hans up against Linda Richman, Dieter, and Wayne—and that’s not even mentioning smaller cult faves like Simon, Lothar Of The Hill People, or the “All Things Scottish” guy—and it’s no contest. Myers excelled at creating offbeat, memorable inventions who arrived feeling fully inhabited. Their imitable quirks and quotable lines were obvious from the second you saw them, the way you can hear a pop song’s chorus and just know it’s destined to burrow into everyone’s brains.
That’s how it was for Austin Powers, a character built on a solid bedrock of all the great British culture Myers’ father had introduced him to—James Bond and Peter Sellers, obviously, but also The Goodies, Peter Cook, and Dudley Moore—and whose overall vibe had already been thoroughly workshopped in Ming Tea, the faux mod-pop band Myers formed as a lark with Matthew Sweet and The Bangles’ Susanna Hoffs. According to The Hollywood Reporter’s recent oral history, by the time Myers and Hoffs’ husband, director Jay Roach, brought the script for International Man Of Mystery to New Line, Austin was fully fleshed out enough that Myers could just come in and do him for studio execs, in what must have been a fairly surreal afternoon. I imagine hearing Myers growl, “Yeahhh, baby!” for the first time had to be like the moment Right Said Fred played “I’m Too Sexy” for its label. You just know a hit when you hear it—and hey, who could possibly get sick of this?
But while Austin Powers lacks the laid-back charm of Wayne Campbell, and all those silly wigs, prosthetic snaggleteeth, and frilly get-ups were a precursor to the moment when Myers’ mugging finally lost all sense of self-awareness, I don’t hate him, specifically. My hate is for the Austin Powers everyone can do—the character that’s mutated and spread through 10,000 “Do I make you horny?”-spouting chatroom geeks, frat boys, and Halloween drunks alike, imitated by dickheads in singles bars who were only trying to be ironically sexy and used car dealers desperate for low-budget commercial concepts. That irritation began to fester the moment I left the theater with those aforementioned weed buddies, one of whom spent the rest of the night spouting, “Yeah, baby!” into every conversational lull. (We don’t talk much these days.)
You can’t blame Mike Myers or Austin Powers for this, of course. After all, it’s the mark of a truly funny movie that every painfully unfunny person starts quoting it ad nauseam. But familiarity naturally breeds contempt, and that endless referencing and replaying has a tendency to ruin what you liked about something in the first place, to the point where you wish the Right Said Fred guys had never been fucking born. It happened with Napoleon Dynamite. It happened with Borat (also produced by Jay Roach, that monster). Long before any of them, it happened with Caddyshack and Airplane. And it definitely happened with Austin Powers, which soon bore no relationship to Myers or his movies at all, instead becoming the hacky alter ego for a million dudes joking about their boners.
Can a movie still be enjoyed after two decades of all that? Unfrozen now, 20 years later, would I find its mannerisms annoying and dated? Or would I, like Elizabeth Hurley’s some-nonsense field agent, succumb to Austin Powers’ charms in spite of myself? Would I find Austin Powers funny if he were coming out of Myers’ mouth again, rather than everyone else’s?
The answer is “Yeahhh, baby, with some qualifiers.” For starters, let’s just appreciate what a well-made movie it is. Austin Powers is still a pitch-perfect homage to all those films that Myers and Roach clearly have great affection for—not just Bond, but other mod touchstones such as In Like Flint, Danger: Diabolik, Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls, etc. Its production design, from the Technicolor pop of its Swinging London opening scenes to the chrome interiors and “quasi-futuristic clothes” of Dr. Evil’s lab, has the kind of finished, instantly iconic look that so many retro comedies strive to establish. (Its iconography might even be more recognizable to today’s audiences than its inspirations.)
The music is spot-on, too, a mix of vintage and neo-psychedelia that deftly straddles the ’60s and the ’90s, and that captures the sort of spy guitar-inflected, lounge-pop revivalism happening at the time through artists like Edwyn Collins, Broadcast, and The Cardigans. Austin Powers also spurred something of a renaissance for Burt Bacharach, whose spotlight scene playing atop a double-decker bus on the Vegas strip preceded a series of reissues and tributes, and then there’s that maddeningly catchy Quincy Jones theme, “Soul Bossa Nova,” which gained new life thanks to Ludacris (inarguably hip-hop’s No. 1 Austin Powers fan). Even Ming Tea’s “BBC,” performed in full costume over the end credits, is a fun, convincing little mod-punk number; you can see why Sweet and Hoffs continued it for a couple more albums.
Beyond those self-assured stylistic nods, the confidence of its convictions is most evident in Austin Powers’ zippy, elaborate opening sequence, a Hard Day’s Night riff that finds Powers dancing merrily through Carnaby Street, dodging groupies and taking charge of a brass band. It’s the kind of hubris you rarely see in movies anymore, particularly in comedies—a scene triumphantly announcing that you’re being introduced to an seminal, larger-than-life character, one who merits all the pomp and self-indulgence the (relatively modest) budget will allow.
Myers matches that enthusiasm with his dual performance—both as the titular, perpetually titillated super-spy and his arch-nemesis, the Blofeld-and-Lorne Michaels-aping Dr. Evil. Of these two characters, time has been kinder to the latter. Austin himself has become such a recognizable assortment of tics; the film is barely two minutes old before he growls his first “Oh, behave,” followed almost immediately by a “Yeah, baby!” Watching it now becomes a struggle to pick out a line you haven’t heard.
But with the exception of “One million dollars,” nothing Dr. Evil says has become nearly as exhausted from overuse—and that scene, in which Robert Wagner’s Number Two calmly explains inflation to him, captures the understated satire that grounds the film’s sillier caprices. Myers may have given Austin Powers all his physical energy, but Dr. Evil gets his smartest material, from his way of talking to his henchmen like a boss who desperately wants to be liked, despite his killing them indiscriminately, to his detailed description of his childhood, a mini-masterpiece of literary, absurdist improvisation.
Myers may have never been livelier, while as his partner, Vanessa, Elizabeth Hurley may have never been lovelier—though truth be told, the script leaves her totally overmatched. Vanessa is basically just as empty an object as Austin treats her, her ostensible role as the sort of strong, intelligent woman who’d find Austin’s come-ons pathetic or offensive lasting approximately five minutes before she’s suppressing tiny smiles on the way to falling for him completely.
Of course, no one’s interested—then or now—in a spy spoof that seriously addresses changing sexual mores, not really. But watching it now, you can’t help but wonder what Austin Powers might have been like if Myers had been paired with a female comedian who could have held her own against him, someone with whom he could have developed an actual repartee. As it is, Hurley is perfectly charming, but she’s near-inconsequential to the plot and barely sketched at all beyond her vague career ambitions and her physical beauty. Worse, she doesn’t get a single funny line. (It’s no wonder 1999’s The Spy Who Shagged Me kills her off with a shrug in its very first scene.)
But then, almost no one gets any funny lines, what with two different Mike Myerses around. Wagner is appreciably dry, but relatively underutilized (especially considering what Rob Lowe would do with the character in the sequels). Mindy Sterling, as Frau Farbissina, is mostly just accents and yelling. And although he classes up the joint considerably, Michael York’s Basil Exposition is barely given much to do besides be slightly stuffy, the meta joke of his name the funniest thing about him.
The closest anyone comes to stealing the spotlight is Seth Green, who, as Dr. Evil’s genetically engineered son Scott Evil, gets laughs by playing his role completely straight, as though he’s in a genuine family drama. Scott’s desperate dreams of becoming a veterinarian, as well as his open bafflement at his father’s needlessly complicated plots (“Why don’t you just shoot him right now?”) rank among the film’s best exchanges.
In truth, I’d kind of forgotten about scenes like that, along with the film’s other moments of lower-key humor—like Myers rattling off some dry, cool, witty wordplay after a henchman’s decapitation, to Hurley’s visible disgust—amid all the louder, “Shagadelic, baby!” excesses. Along with other cameos (Clint Howard as a NORAD officer! Carrie Fisher as a therapist! A guy I kept thinking was Norm Macdonald, but definitely isn’t Norm Macdonald, as Paddy O’Brien!), I’d also forgotten about a youngish Will Ferrell as Mustafa, the henchman whom Dr. Evil attempts to kill but instead only ends up very badly burned, howling in confusion for several minutes while the others try to ignore him.
It’s a sequence that seems to belong to a slightly different, weirder film, as do the deleted scenes that were included on the original Austin Powers DVD: one in which the wife of a murdered henchman learns of his death, then has to break the news to his grieving stepson; another in which Rob Lowe plays a guy who similarly learns about his buddy’s demise, then has to inform the rest of his bachelor party. You can see why these were cut; they would have completely derailed the film’s zippy plot right at key points of action. But along with other deleted bits where Wagner and Myers squabble over the cost of a briefcase, and Cheri Oteri’s flight attendant lectures Austin on updated safety regulations aboard his private jet, they hint at the more gleefully discursive movie that might have been—sort of a precursor to the comedy formula that would later be perfected by Ferrell and Adam McKay.
Still, although it was a shame to lose some of that quieter, shaggier, character-based humor, it must be said that Austin Powers also has some really solid pissing and shitting jokes. Austin’s 90-second, post-cryogenics pee, as well as Austin’s drowning of a henchman in a toilet while a confused Tom Arnold listens from the next stall (ending with arguably Arnold’s greatest ever line-reading) remain funny as ever to my eternal inner 12-year-old. Similarly, Myers’ exchange with his old comedy partner, Neil Mullarkey, as the agent who keeps contradicting Austin’s disavowal of his Swedish penis pump, is a bit of comic escalation you could teach at improv classes.
Furthermore, while they were both improved upon and diluted through their bigger, bolder reprisals in the sequels, the sequences where Myers and Hurley conceal their nudity behind randomly placed objects remain impressive in their elaborately choreographed commitments to an incredibly dumb joke. And sprinkled throughout, there are still plenty of great, smaller-scale lines (“Danger is my middle name;” “Allow myself to introduce… myself;” “Who throws a shoe, honestly?”) that have somehow escaped being referenced to death, just waiting to be rediscovered.
The screenplay is full of good lines, actually—something that sounds obvious, but is easy to forget after years of Austin Powers being reduced to just the catch-phrases. There’s an oft-repeated anecdote, usually from John Cleese, about the days when Monty Python would perform for audiences who were no longer laughing, just silently mouthing along with the sketches. When a comedy becomes that deeply embedded in the lingo, it ceases to resemble comedy at all. These days, you can’t hear “Oh behave!” or “That’s a man, baby!” without hearing echoes of your deeply unfunny boss or a thousand internet commenters. Austin Powers abounds with now-dated cultural references—America Online; The Macarena; Time-Life VHS tapes; Carrot Top movies; a cryogenically frozen Gary Coleman; an unfortunate joke about Princess Di, released a month after her death—but ultimately, its most dated reference ends up being itself, felt whenever the film pauses to blast out another classic Austin Powers line like a ”Shagadelic!” T-shirt from a cannon.
Still, its popularity shouldn’t be its burden. Myers and Roach created one of cinema’s most successful, enduring comedy characters, one that rivals even Myers’ idol Peter Sellers and his Inspector Clouseau. For that alone they have earned their place in history. But as with The Pink Panther, in each successive sequel, the Austin Powers franchise increasingly felt like a tired riff on its own tropes, reprising lines and even entire scenes with perfunctory automation. Even their most inventive addition was literally just a smaller, less funny clone. It suffered from its success, the way so many comedy franchises do.
For 15 years now, there’s been talk of a fourth Austin Powers film, with Myers and Roach both voicing a reserved enthusiasm. To their lasting credit, that optimism has always been tempered by the recognized need for a story that would justify the now-53-year-old Myers donning the wig and cravat again, just to rehash the same old lines for a crowd laughing the warm, yet hollow laughter of recognition. But the fact that no one seems to be trying all that hard to even find that story seems telling. Austin Powers already continues to live on, well outside of his movies. He’s still deep inside all of us, turning my phrasing into a naughty, sort-of-funny sexual innuendo. He may still be funny, but it might take another 20 years of being frozen for him to feel new again.
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