Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery

(1997) *** Pg-13
88 min. New Line. Director: Jay Roach. Cast: Mike Myers, Elizabeth Hurley, Michael York, Mimi Rogers, Robert Wagner.

When the seemingly humble comedy feature Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery tanked and slinked out of theatres, few foresaw that the movie would launch the franchise to define cinematic comedy at the turn of the milennium, eclipsing the Farrelly brothers and giving Adam Sandler a run for his money. For my money, we've come a long way down over the years. Even latter-day parodists Z.A.Z. (Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker) seem like the Old Masters compared to what passes for modern comedy. So it is with gratitude that I embrace Mike Myers's oeuvre, even though I love-hate it.

Myers, who came to fruition alongside fellow mugger Dana Carvey, has a tendency to overdo it. It's impossible, however, not to compare his ingenious character work to his idol, Peter Sellers. That he suffers in comparison can't diminish the inevitability of the comparison; Myers is talented and skilled at riffing through his own larger-than-life character creations.

The relatively understated Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery introduces two Mike Myers characters from the '60s world of spy chic: the titular swinging superspy and his supervillain nemesis, Dr. Evil. When the lazy-eyed Dr. Evil threatens 1997, the cryogenically frozen Austin must be thawed to save the world. In 1997, Austin is a fish out of water, teaming with the empowered daughter (Elizabeth Hurley) of his 60s, spy babe partner and failing to adjust to political correctness (of course, Mimi Rogers, as Hurley's Emma Peel-esque mother, hardly seems less liberated). The plot is incidental to the elaborate spy movie trappings.

Before the end of the opening titles (played to Quincy Jones's "Soul Bossa Nova"), Myers and handpicked director Jay Roach have strongly evoked You Only Live Twice, A Hard Day's Night and Blow-Up. Though Dr. Evil is obviously entrenched in James Bond iconography, Powers is largely inspired by Bond's knock-offs (Harry Palmer, Matt Helm, Derek Flint) and, peripherally, by Sellers's Clouseau and TV spy Maxwell Smart, himself a parody of a parody of Bond. Powers is an inspired collage, talking in antique British slang ("Do I make you horny, baby?" tops the catch-phrase list, but I'm partial to his "Wait a tick!" and "Hello, vicar!" when aroused).

Myers has been accused of foolishly trying to mock movies that were themselves parodies, but his interest here is not merely to spoof spy movie conventions to illogical extremes, but (like Get Smart) to carry them to logical ones. The most ingenious extrapolation is giving the preening, Blofeld-like supervillain Dr. Evil a rebellious teenage son named Scott (Seth Green). The mostly improvised interaction between the pinky-posing, overenunciating cartoon of Dr. Evil and his reasonable enough son pays great comic dividends. Because of Myers's rare restraint with Evil, the character provides the comic highlights (a monologue about his upbringing and physical business involving his imposing supervillain chair) and has essentially eclipsed the manic Powers in popularity.

It's easy to overlook the others in a Myers-centric comedy, but he gets especially strong support from straight-woman Hurley and his soon-to-recur supporting cast (Michael York as Basil Exposition, improv queen Mindy Sterling as Frau Farbissina, and Robert Wagner as Number Two).

This first film in the series is the purest in period style, with its Laugh-In transitions, Las Vegas scenes, and energetically cheesy mock-'60s camera movement from Peter Deming. Myers incorporates evil lairs, judo, shark pits, post-killing wisecracks, phallic weaponry, objectified spy babes, and guest-star cameos (Burt Bacharach, Carrie Fisher, and Tom Arnold). Most importantly, he establishes the childlike, willfully silly core comedy values that drive the series: scatology and talking funny. Yeah, it's frequently lame but nerve-strikingly compulsory viewing all the same.

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