I never had any real intention to watch Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery in full. I wasn’t won over by the previews when it was released in 1997, and ignored it upon its release. Later, when some friends were watching it, I caught about a third of it. I thought it was OK, but nothing I felt compelled to watch the whole thing. Then I saw the first sequel, Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, also directed by Jay Roach, and frankly, it was terrible. So I didn’t have any inclination to go back to the first one and view it in full — after all, what I had seen hadn’t wowed me, and what if what I had seen was the only tolerable part?
Call it fate or dumb luck, but circumstances conspired against me. Flixster has a few offers going currently whereby one can download a few high-resolution movies from them for free. I chose Dog Day Afternoon for one, and was thinking I’d get to choose on the other two as well. Nuh uh. Those were randomly selected, and you get what they give, and one of the ones I got was Austin Powers. I may not have been intending to watch it, but since I’ve got it available to me anyway, I’m going to make use of it. After all, the third was 17 Again, and I’m going to grit my teeth and watch that eventually, so surely I could make it through Austin Powers.
I actually think the little musical cuts are a nice touch, although this one foreshadows The Love Guru in retrospect.
Since I’m reasonably sure I’m the last English-speaking person on the internet not to have seen this movie in full, I don’t think I need to say a whole lot about the plot. Austin Powers spoofs James Bond movies, and knockoffs of James Bond movies; I’m particularly reminded of the Matt Helm movies which I’ve seen bits and pieces of, and of course the fem-bots remind me of the Dr. Goldfoot movies. I don’t know if Mike Myers, who wrote the script as well as starring in it, had those movies specifically in mind or not, but it’s pretty clear he had that type of movie in mind. Of course, this all amounts to Austin Powers being a parody of parodies, which is risky territory, as it easily leads to the plot being thinner than the jokes. Still, the plot is actually fairly serviceable, even if the jokes often aren’t.
I’m not a big fan of crude or vulgar humor. It can be done well — John Belushi was a master at it — but by and large it requires more skill to make it funny and by and large it’s attempted by people who put less effort into it. So some of the jokes simply didn’t make me laugh just on that merit. A bigger problem though was that when a joke was good, it was often ruined by its delivery — specifically a tendency to drag it on for several minutes, or to promptly explain the joke. The “evacuation” joke was a reasonably funny gag — for about five seconds of its five minute length. The “lucky charms” joke was hilarious in the way that only really stupid puns with extended setups can be, but it was ruined by the characters explaining the joke afterward. The audience sees you’ve made a joke; move on.
I’m surprised Myers didn’t have Basil Exposition explain his surname.
The acting is mostly pretty decent. Elizabeth Hurley plays well off of Myers’s antics, seeming exasperated but never completely losing it. Michael York’s role as Basil Exposition may not be large, but he handles his role in exactly the straight-laced way it needs to be; similarly, Robert Wagner as Number Two is a solid, if mundane, performance. I didn’t really like Mindy Sterling’s performance as Frau Farbissina, but it was very likely due to how the character is written; “cackling evil German woman” is neither a nuanced role nor a very entertaining one. The standout performance, especially given how most of the secondary performers have limited roles, may be Seth Green as Dr. Evil’s son Scott. He may just be an exasperated rebellious youth, but Green comes across as genuinely being that character, and he has the best comic timing in the cast.
The weak link is, unfortunately, Mike Myers himself. But oddly, it’s only in half his performance. In the interest of full disclosure, I’m generally biased against a comic actor playing multiple roles anyway (Peter Sellers has an exemption on account of being a genius). But the reason I’ve acquired that bias is because in most such films, the characters don’t get a fully-nuanced performance, and the film is often written around a pair (or more) of characters who wind up having a couple brush strokes of characterization without a full persona being created. It tends to fall flat, and that’s the case here. Doctor Evil is a fairly shallow and standard parody of a supervillain, but Myers does reasonably well here. He’s at least convincing as a petty conniving evil-doer. The weak part is Austin Powers himself. I can see Myers’ enthusiasm for the character, but I don’t see the character, I see Myers playing the character. He feels more like the caricatures that make up Saturday Night Live sketches than a fully-developed character, which is a strange thing to say considering Myers’ best film is probably Wayne’s World, where the title character is in fact a reasonably well-developed character from a series of sketches. The thing I’m not sure most SNL alumni get is that a few tics and catch phrases don’t make a character. Austin does get some development when it finally hits home just how alienated he is in the 1990s, but it’s pretty late in the movie, and until then he has only a tiny bit of personality amongst the tics.
Oooh, behave… like a human being and not a sixth-grader’s cartoon.
Still, complaints aside, the film really isn’t all that bad. Jay Roach does a good job of directing here; the action is always clear and coherent, and the visual elements to the jokes is always well done, regardless of whether the jokes themselves are to my liking. The plot is simple, but it’s a spy spoof; it goes with the territory. The music is pretty good throughout. And there are some funny jokes in it.
Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery may not be for me, but it’s one where I can at least see why other people like it.