Tuesday, June 24, 2008

My Favorite "Austin Powers"

Mike Myers' latest movie, The Love Guru, recently came out to negative reviews and a shrug from the general audience.  It's a shame, because I really like Mike Myers.

As critics and cynics started logging their negative reactions to Love Guru, I began noticing this trend of people carelessly stating that Mike Myers hasn't made a good live-action film since the first Austin Powers movie.  That's a surprise, since my favorite Austin Powers movie is the second one, The Spy Who Shagged Me.

While I've been told that the first Austin Powers (International Man of Mystery) gets better with repeat viewings, it never hooked me enough in my two viewings of it to get me to a third.  I've never been much of an Elizabeth Hurley fan.  Nor much of a Mimi Rogers fan.  And since I'm not much of a James Bond aficionado, a British spy spoof doesn't carry much weight for me.
Which is exactly why I consider the second one more successful.  When they did the second movie, they weren't thinking "we're making a British spy movie spoof," they were thinking "we're making an Austin Powers movie."  And that was much funnier to me.
Timing also probably had something to do with it.  The first movie came out when I was in high school.  The second one came out while I was in college.  Austin Powers is better when you're in college than when you're in high school.
The second movie had Mini-Me, who was hilarious from concept through execution.  It wasn't enough to just have a miniaturized clone of Dr. Evil; they took it the extra step and made him a hormonal, aggressive freak.  Although some people seem to think Mini-Me was inspired by Nick Nack from The Man With the Golden Gun, he was clearly based more on Marlon Brando's sidekick in 1996's The Island of Dr. Moreau -- a bold move, considering few people saw that movie and even fewer liked it.  Almost ten years later, people still refer to smaller versions of a thing as its Mini-Me; a trend that shows no signs of going away.
And, of course, there was Fat Bastard.  Out of all of Mike Myers' Scottish characters, this one is easily the best.  I'm not big on gross-out humor, but Fat Bastard hits all the right notes.  This is, after all, the man who intends to eat Mini-Me ("I'm bigger than you; I'm higher on the food chain.  Get.  In.  My.  Belly!")  Excellent idea to put a man who weighs one metric ton in the same movie as the clone that "fits easily into most overhead storage bins."
A big improvement in the second movie was Rob Lowe as Number Two.  No offense to Robert Wagner, who originated the role, but he was pretty much just being Robert Wagner.  Everyone in Dr. Evil's criminal organization is a caricature, an exaggeration.  Even Mr. Bigglesworth couldn't get away with just being a cat; it had to be one of those freaky hairless cats.  In the second movie, Number Two successfully becomes an exaggeration due to the fact that it's Rob Lowe impersonating Robert Wagner playing Number Two.  Perhaps Number Two would have been a better character in International Man of Mystery if Robert Wagner had played him as an impersonation of Rob Lowe.  As it stands, Number Two as played by Robert Wagner doesn't seem to fit into the movie for me.  Sorry, the eye patch is not enough to make him an eccentric.
That being said, Robert Wagner still gets a good laugh out of me in his description of how he made the company rich by investing in Starbucks.  It's not even a particularly funny moment.  There's just something about the way he does it that amuses me.
Heather Graham was great.  "Just the Two of Us" as performed by Dr. Evil was great.  "Mini-Me, stop humping the laser."  The cameos by Will Farrell and Kristin Johnston were great.  "Why won't you die?!"  Elvis Costello and Bert Bacharach were great.  "The moon unit will be divided into to teams: Moon Unit Alpha and Moon Unit Zappa."  Tim Robbins was great.  "Beautiful Stranger" was great.  You get the idea.  They hit this one out of the park.
So why are critics saying that International Man of Mystery was the only good Austin Powers movie?  Residual contempt bleeding over from Goldmember.  Goldmember sucked.
If the first Austin Powers movie was thought of as "let's make a Bond spoof," and the second was "let's make an Austin Powers movie," then the third must have been thought of as "let's make an Austin Powers sequel."  And that's exactly what they did.  They asked themselves what people liked about the previous movies, and they did it all again without adding anything fresh or new, without even seeming to enjoy themselves much.
That was another key to the second movie.  The fun, the energy.  They knew that they were lucky they got to make a second movie.  Although the first movie is now thought of as a modern comedy classic, don't forget that in its original theatrical release, it made just a few dollars more than "bomb."  It found its second life of home video.  They not only dodged the bullet of completely tanking, but now they were thrilled that they actually had the chance to do these characters again.  You can feel that excitement in Spy.  By the time they were making Goldmember, it was pretty much a forgone conclusion that it would rake in a ton of money.  They had the smug confidence of success.  I'm not exactly saying they phoned it in.  I'm just saying it was another day at the office, as opposed to a passion project.
Here are the things I remember finding amusing in Goldmember: Steven Spielberg doing backflips in the opening dance sequence, and Fat Bastard saying his neck looked like a vagina after he lost weight.  Other than that, I remember lesser retreads of jokes from the previous two movies.
Here's where things get a little complicated.  Many devotees of International Man of Mystery have leveled the same accusation against The Spy Who Shagged Me.  It's definitely true that some of the jokes from the first movie were reworked in the second one.  But not to the degree that they were straight up replicated for the third movie.  Identical, and less funny.  (The same thing happened with the two Wayne's World movies.)
You might think that the awfulness of Goldmember would shine a better light on Spy for those people who were on the fence about it.  Instead, it seems to have worked in reverse.  The awfulness of Goldmember has cast a pall on Spy, causing people to group all Austin Powers sequels into the "bad" category and keeping the original exclusively in the "good" category.
This is wrong.  I encourage everybody to go back and take another look.  Not to take anything away from people who loved International Man of Mystery, but The Spy Who Shagged Me is the most effortlessly enjoyable of the Austin Powers movies.  If nothing else, let us all agree that Goldmember was an unfortunate misfire.
As for The Love Guru, I'll be waiting till it comes out on video.  But I will watch it.  And I will be rooting for Mike Myers.