90's-vember: Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997) - Can't Stop the Movies
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90’s-vember: Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997)

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Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery is the greatest comedy ever made, but only for a brief window when you're thirteen years old and you're experiencing all of these jokes for the first time.  I remember being physically unable to stop laughing after a certain point, choosing instead to just give myself to the violent chuckles brewing within me and let my body fall out of the sofa I was sitting in time after time.  There was just something about the film that Adam Sandler and Chris Farley comedies couldn't touch and Jim Carey hadn't bothered to try quite yet.  Austin Powers was ok being smarter than it's intended audience and gussying itself up as though it wasn't.

This is a notable trend throughout comedies of the '90s.  We hadn't quite yet hit the intense period of intellectual backlash that would pervade the years of the Bush administration but without the same kind of simpering man-children that Judd Apatow and company have brewed into this modern age.  A hero like Austin Powers could exist because he came from a place of intelligence and, as is the trend throughout all time, a bit of the scatalogical humor.  But throughout all of the humor there was the sense that Mike Meyers and director Jay Roach had an affection for the spy films of the '60s (such as Our Man Flint), the pervading intellectual atmosphere of cinema (with its many tributes to Blow-up), and, of course, the myriad of James Bond pictures.

There's Elizabeth Hurley, it must be the '90s.

The amount of research and care that went into Austin Powers exposes its entirely non-cynical heart.  Austin himself is a loving creation, expressing nothing but free will and the desire to shag with as few complications as possible.  Even his nemesis Dr. Evil is more threatening by proxy of being incompetent but with access to dangerous equipment than being any sort of horrible person.  Dr. Evil is clearly modeled after Blofeld from many Bond films, right down to the feline partner.  Austin is cut a bit less from the same cloth, preferring to go for the absurdity of Derek Flint and mix the psychedelic color palette of the '60s.  The costumes they both wear may seem a bit ridiculous, but considering they're based (and in some parts recycled) from Antonioni films (the aforementioned Blow-up) and Factory fashions it's just a reminder of how silly we all were.

The old Mike Meyers disappeared after this film.  As much as I do enjoy the next two films in the series, they became bitterly cynical in the second and a bit tired in the third.  Meyers himself began expressing such contempt for his audience of catchphrase spouting idiots that he purposely made one of the worst comedies ever (The Love Guru) just to show he could still be funny...he just doesn't feel like it anymore.  Maybe if he had bought into the trends of the '90s a little less we'd have the happier Meyers back, making the occasional quirky comedy, and reminding the rest of the world that Dana Carvey could be funny sometimes.

How does this film exemplify the '90's?

Considering that the film is exactly about a man from the '60s attempting to fit in to the '90s it's mired in a number of conventions but some are unintentional:

  • It's another in a long line of unofficial Saturday Night Live films that were incredibly popular in the '90s.  Will Ferrell pops by as an Indian and not a single soul bats an eye.
  • Cold War references are made and Meyers actually expects us to be knowledgeable enough about history to catch on.
  • Dr. Evil dances "The Macarena" and those that remember share a moment of shame (it's just funny enough to show that he's not "with it", though also reminding us just how terrible it was to begin with).
  • Elizabeth Hurley in a popular starring role.  Aside from the horrible Bedazzled, she was never to be seen in an even partially-accepted widescreen release ever again.
  • Dated products galore: pump shoes that blow up in Austin's face, VHS player to show Austin the history of the world (how I actually watched this film for the first time), cds mistaken for records and, for the coup de grace, and appearance by America On-line with streaming dial-up video.
  • Intentionally positioned catchphrases galore (see also, just about any film with Jim Carey in the '90s): "Yeah, baby!", "Shagadelic", "...frikkin' (noun)".
  • Taking advantage of new technology, one actor, multiple roles (see also, the source of Eddie Murphy's '90s success).

A laugh most evil.

What makes this my pick?

Because, no matter what, I can't silence the 13-year old in me who hit the ground no less than 20 times because I was laughing so hard.  Also due to the fact that no matter what anyone tells me, Dr. Evil's origin story is one of the most brilliantly staged, written and performed bits of comedy ever to come to fruition.

Austin Powers has all of the optimism of Clinton-era entertainment without the flood of fecal matter that would pervade later films in the series (and with American Pie, comedies overall).  It is trapped in the '90s, being the plot and all, but has just enough heart to make it a consistent winner for me.

Now go watch that clip, and belittle some chestnuts.

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Posted by Andrew

Comments (4) Trackbacks (0)
  1. I saw this in the theater when it was first playing and really adored it. This film’s shout out to Beyond the Valley of the Dolls gets me every time.

    P.S. – Dr. No never had a cat. That was Blofeld, who was the much more obvious influence on Dr. Evil.

  2. It’s fun to watch this film and see where some of the comedic conventions of the 2000s came from (Will Ferrell’s small part alone is the quintessential Will Ferrell humor that would dominate culture for several years [Anchorman specifically comes to mind]).

    Dr. Evil’s origin story still makes me laugh after all this time. It’s a sign of a good movie.

    • The details of his life are anything but inconsequential.

      Also I completely agree, Ferrell’s one scene in present-day before his lingering death has all the high-volume squealy awkward funniness that would come.

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