Austin Powers in Goldmember

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When Eddie Murphy's concert film Raw came out 15 years ago, the standard line in negative reviews was that Murphy didn't need criticism, he needed a shrink. It was nearly impossible to deny his skill as a performer and storyteller, but the film's blunt anger, paranoia and desperation threw a lot of people for a loop. The cuddly black superstar, who caricatured black male rage and made it safe for white teensagers to consume at the local mall multiplex, ripped off his mask like a Scooby-Doo villain and revealed a seriously screwed-up human being. He satirized homosexuals, Italians and white folks generally; he veered off into an out-of-nowhere harangue about golddigging women. It was as if Murphy was telling his audience, "The whole world knows my name and I'm still unhappy. Fuck you for liking me so much." Austin Powers in Goldmember made me think of Murphy and Raw?and not just because the driving force is another ex-SNL heavyweight, star-cowriter-producer Mike Myers. It's been three years since Myers released a movie he originated, and aside from his vocal work in Shrek, he's stayed out of theaters entirely, except for Mystery, Alaska. Goldmember starts with a joke on movies that recasts the Austin Powers characters with big-name actors (the celebrity cameos are surprising and fun). Then it cuts to reveal that we were watching a biographical movie still in production, as observed by set visitor Austin Powers. Then it moves on to the mandatory, shagadelic, Richard Lester-inspired opening musical number.

Myers and cowriter Michael McCullers take their sweet time getting to the "plot," which has Dutch supervillain Goldmember (three guesses how he got the name) joining forces with bald baddie Dr. Evil to build a tractor beam that will divert a ball of magma onto the polar ice caps, flooding the world and...oh, you don't really care, do you? I sure didn't, and I seriously doubt Myers cares. For him, the Austin Powers films are just an excuse to suit up as various characters (including Dr. Evil, Goldmember and obese henchman Fat Bastard) and be silly. Some of the jokes are deliriously weird and random, or so dumb and obvious you can hardly believe he included them in the first place (a pair of Japanese twins named Fook Yu and Fook Me; a scene where Austin evades a henchman by hiding behind a urinating statue, accidentally unplugging it and having to replace the stream with his own). These same jokes get extended way past their logical stopping point; not content to toss out a blunt, lame bit and move on, Myers repeats it...and repeats it...and repeats it. Then he waits a couple of beats, letting a character head for the door, and repeats it again. There's a bit involving a mole in Dr. Evil's organization (played by Fred Savage) who's distinguished by a mole on his upper lip. Neither Dr. Evil nor Powers nor anyone else can resist staring at it and commenting on it, which is funny the first few times and unfunny the next five times, after which point it starts to become funny again.

The first couple of films weren't exactly precision-tooled narrative machines, but this one is so disinterested in storytelling that it makes the second Austin Powers seem like Miller's Crossing. Unlikely as it may sound, this one feels like Myers' halting attempt to work through a laundry list of issues: a star's urge to give the audience exactly what it expects while putting a fresh spin on things; the funhouse-mirror aspect of Hollywood studio filmmaking, with its fondness for pastiche, parody, merchandising and sequels; the ways in which celebrity traps young stars in perpetual adolescence; and a whole host of family issues that seem so personal?so tied to Myers' own fixations?that they must be either deeply autobiographical or a total put-on.

Goldmember is obsessed with failed fathers. Besides Dr. Evil, who ignores his blood offspring (Seth Green) in favor of dwarf pet-cum-surrogate-son Mini-Me (Vern Troyer), we also get to meet Austin Powers' dad Nigel (Michael Caine), a globetrotting superspy playboy so neglectful of his children that when Austin is being knighted by the Queen, he doesn't even bother to show up. When Goldmember kidnaps the elder Powers and whisks him back in time to 1975, Austin hops in a time-travel machine and hooks up with sidekick Foxy Cleopatra (Beyonce Knowles, who, like all Austin Powers babes, has screen presence to burn and almost no chance to be funny) to rescue him. All the old man can do is complain that his son interrupted him pre-group sex. The film seems to be mocking the bad-daddy explanation for human unhappiness, yet there's an edge of real anguish and hostility in Myers' parody, and it threw me a bit. I don't want to make it sound like Myers has gone all arty on us; I'm just saying that within the confines of a widescreen slapstick comedy aimed mainly at 11-year-old boys, Myers and his collaborators seem to be making a personal movie, and that's so odd that I'm inclined to respect it.

Myers is an awfully peculiar bird?easily the strangest member of Hollywood's $20 million leading-man club. While both he and Eddie Murphy dig doing character work under heavy makeup, the similarity stops there. Where the latter seems game for anything, including kooky family blockbusters, Myers seems terrified to go beyond what he already knows will work?and what's been working for Myers is a combination of Peter Sellers-level caricature, improvisational riffing, mallet-in-the-face slapstick, Benny Hill sex humor and an endless supply of pee-pee/poo-poo sight gags. I'd be lying if I said I didn't find him funny. Sometimes his sheer joy in performing makes me laugh even when the material's a groaner. Another bonus: unlike any SNL star of any generation, Myers is a movie comic, not a tv actor or a standup star who got lucky at the movies. All three Austin Powers movies are essentially revue-sketch compilations, gathered under a James Bond parody umbrella. They're indefensible as narrative (they barely have a concept, much less a story), yet they feel cinematic because, unlike most movies by ex-SNL stars (Adam Sandler's movies, for example), they refuse to confine their humor to dialogue or body language. Aided by his main collaborator, director Jay Roach, Myers thinks out his gags for the wide screen.

The first Austin Powers had a good joke about mainstream movies' fear of the male member; the naked superspy waltzed through a rather long dialogue scene, his manhood blocked by conveniently placed foreground objects. This one has several variations of the blocked tallywhacker setpiece, including a terrific joke about how hard it is to read white subtitles against a white background, and a bit where Austin and Mini-Me hide from henchmen behind a medical partition, then play out all manner of accidental, revoltingly suggestive images in silhouette. Myers is at his peak when he's thinking in pictures; he and Roach seem to understand each other in the way that Jerry Lewis and Frank Tashlin understood each other.

Goldmember feels like the work of a fantastically gifted, painfully self-limited comic artist who is literally and figuratively trying to get something out of his system (without hurting his superstar cash flow). I'm not saying Myers' next movie will be another City Lights or Playtime; I'm just saying I want to see it. I have a feeling it's going to be horrible or brilliant?maybe both.

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