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Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2002

You only laugh twice

Austin Powers in Goldmember

Rating: * * *
Director: Jay Roach
Running time: 95 minutes
Language: English
Now showing

A long time ago in a Hollywood far, far away, a studio exec at Colombia Pictures once passed on making Mel Brooks' "Blazing Saddles" because he found the fart jokes offensive. Lord knows that if the script for "Austin Powers in Goldmember" had passed his desk, it would have sent him to an early grave.

News photo
Mike Myers in Jay Roach's "Austin Powers in Goldmember"

The first "Austin Powers" film was essentially a two-joke film, a silly parody of "Swinging London" style and 007 movies. That concept hit its limit fairly quickly, so series mastermind Mike Myers has increasingly moved from silly double-entendre to steaming scatological jokes. "Goldmember," as its title suggests, consists of almost nothing but; it's surely a sign of the times where a "golden shower" joke becomes the stuff of mainstream comedy. But, hey, it's a funny one, so who's complaining? The problem comes when piss 'n' poop jokes become Myers' knee-jerk response to any and every scene.

Certainly Myers can be creative when he wants to: "Goldmember's" opening sequence -- with a fistful of celebrity cameos that I won't spoil for you -- is about the funniest thing you'll see all year: It's a parody of Hollywood action flicks, obvious casting choices and the "Austin Powers" series itself, all at one go, baby.

Of course, two minutes after getting Myers' Dr. Jeckyll, we also get his Mr. Hyde: Britney Spears makes an obnoxious cameo in what is basically a mini-music video advertisement for her soundtrack single. This is hardly surprising in a franchise where the advertising budget has exceeded the actual filmmaking budget (as was the case with "The Spy Who Shagged Me"), but it's not handled well and feels more like a commercial than a joke.

The story, such as there is, is the usual mishmash of James Bond tropes involving evil geniuses, sexy spies and a tractor beam designed to hurl an asteroid into the Earth. Dr. Evil and his clone, Mini-Me, are back, and this time secret agent Austin Powers has to travel back in time to the '70s to rescue his father (Michael Caine) from the clutches of the evil Dutch disco Svengali Goldmember (also played by Myers).

By moving the series into the '70s, later Bond films of the Roger Moore era ("Live and Let Die" et al.) become ripe for parody. Yet the best parody relies on intimate knowledge of its subject (e.g. "Spinal Tap"), and thrives on the details and minutiae. Myers' satire of the '60s and '70s, however, is based only on the broadest cliches and vaguest memories.

Take Austin's "swinging" pop band, Ming Tea, which performs an entire song, for another made-for-MTV clip: They sound more like wannabe Oasis than anything truly '60s. The '70s humor, meanwhile, rarely gets past the obvious lingo ("pimpmobile," "jive turkey") and bad fashion (30-cm-high Afros and gold chains). And don't get me started about the totally misjudged sumo scenes (will Hollywood ever get Japan right?)

Ironically, it's the present that Myers nails best: Dr. Evil's jailhouse rap is done up as a hilarious spoof of hip-hop videos, complete with flailing hand gestures, bleeped-out lyrics and a bevy of "hos" in various states of undress. Like the Jerry Springer scene in "The Spy Who Shagged Me," Myers cuts sharpest when he's working with contemporary U.S. pop culture. (Though local audiences who have yet to see MTV's "The Osbournes" won't get Ozzy's little cameo here . . .)

The film's other brilliant move is to make fun of Hollywood sequels' tendency to repeat themselves -- hence to make fun of itself. Entire jokes from the last "Austin Powers" are deliberately recycled, shamelessly, with the film's characters even commenting on this repetitiveness. It's just an ironic way to be formulaic, but it sure as hell beats "MIIB."

For all that works, though, there's at least as much that doesn't: The Fat Bastard character is even cruder and stupider than before, if that's possible, while Myers' Goldmember doesn't elicit a single laugh the entire film. The joke seems to be that he's a pervert. And Dutch. Or as Dr. Evil puts it, "you Dutch bastard."

Unlike the Farrelly brothers ("Shallow Hal"), who really do seem to like the obese, the freakish and all the other misfits who people their films, Myers has a plain mean streak to his humor. Fat people are funny because they're disgustingly fat, while foreigners are stupid because they can't speak English right. All too often Myers comes off as the class clown, the wimp who plays to the crowd at the expense of anyone who seems weaker or more marginalized, all the while surrounding his nerdy presence with babes like Beyonce and Heather Graham. (Which, when you think of it, isn't all that different from those hip-hop videos he's making fun of.)

For all its flaws, though (and there are many), "Goldmember" will make you laugh, just not as long and regularly as you might wish, unless you're the sort of person who's already chuckling over the words "long" and "regularly." Still, any film in which you can see Britney Spears' head explode into a flaming mass of debris is worth the price of admission. Totally.

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