Saturday, 17 November 2012

REALLY RUBBISH: Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (1999)

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Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (USA, 1999)
Directed by Jay Roach
Starring Mike Myers, Heather Graham, Michael York, Robert Wagner

While making a successful sequel is difficult in its own right, it becomes especially difficult when you're dealing with comedies. Great comedies so often work because they are beautifully self-contained, with the filmmakers quitting before the joke runs out of steam or the conceit begins to fall apart. Making a sequel, in which you revisit said jokes or conceit, has the effect of either stretching out or repeating the material until it's no longer funny, or even to the point where we begin to feel unfavourably towards the original.

 
There are a lot of bad comedy sequels out there which represent a fall from grace compared to the original. But with the possible, painful exception of The Odd Couple II, no sequel represents a bigger drop in quality than Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me. This film swiftly disposes of all the assets possessed by its predecessor, replacing them with poorly-written, poorly-timed gags which will send even Bond's biggest critics rushing back to the open arms of The World Is Not Enough. The result is an awful, unfunny and often mean-spirited comedy which should have ended this series.
 
The film is best summed up by Kim Newman's quote about The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2: "it seems to have been made by someone who not only didn't make the first film, but who never actually saw it." Everything that was right about the first Austin Powers (which was not a perfect film by any means) is either completely absent from this sequel, or so watered-down and half-arsed that it may as well not be here at all. Where the first film attempted to marry gross-out humour with some kind of ambitious satire, the humour in The Spy Who Shagged Me is as broad and boring as it gets.
 
The best moments in Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery were the smart insights into the clichés of the Bond series and the spy genre as a whole. Whether it was Scott pointing out the inconsistencies in his father's plan, the therapy scene with Dr. Evil's bizarre back-story, or the cutaways to the family and friends of the sidekicks - these were all well-written and intelligent jokes which had something to say about their source material. While these jokes ultimately struggled for room amongst the broader, more adolescent gags, the fact that they were there at all gave the first film a sense of ambition - a sense consolidated by its timing, at the height of Pierce Brosnan's neo-classical Bond.
Unfortunately, director Jay Roach got the wrong end of the stick. He clearly believes that the reason for the first film's high box office was the abundance of toilet humour and cheap gags. So rather than build on the analysis of the first film and deepen Austin's character, he resorts to flinging these jokes at us, the vast majority of which are run into the ground as the plot grinds to a halt. The problem is not with gross-out humour as a concept - National Lampoon's Animal House made it work, as did American Pie not long after this film's release. The problem is that it feels like a lazy comedown after the intelligence of the first film, and that Roach seems utterly incapable of marshalling the jokes into anything that could assist the storytelling or characters.
Proof of this film's status as one big missed opportunity is found in its central conceit. The setup contains an interesting little idea: what good is Austin Powers (and thereby Bond) without his sex appeal? This could have been a funny, intelligent way to send up the series, addressing the accusations of sexism and giving the female characters more to play with (stop sniggering). But instead the idea of Austin "losing his mojo" is introduced and then left as nothing more than an overarching theme, while different SNL-style interludes wander into shot, fall flat and then cease to have any significance.
Another example of this is the opening five minutes, where Vanessa (Austin's love interest in the first film) is revealed to be a fembot and tries to kill him. Again, this is an idea that could really work: it's a bizarrely funny explanation for why Bond always has a different love interest in every film, despite going all the way with every Bond girl. But instead the film embraces the very cliché it is trying to send up; Austin can start afresh and we can repeat all the romantic interactions of the first film. The whole film falls into this trap, with the reversal of the time periods allowing outdated attitudes to be expressed without a hint of irony.
If the first film wanted us to laugh while also poking fun and trying to make a point, this film, to quote Basil Exposition, just wants us to enjoy ourselves and resist the urge to think too much. This scene epitomises the film: it's a half-decent joke, surrounded by a lack of ambition bordering on contempt, all served with a shit-eating grin. No matter how hard the film tries to entertain us, it is never funny enough to hold together in such a way that we wouldn't question its mechanics.
When I reviewed The Princess Bride, I spoke about the need for spoofs to have stories that work on their own terms - in other words, an internal logic so that the jokes make sense within their exaggerated take on our reality. While International Man of Mystery was reasonably believable in this regard, this film keeps on ramping up the ludicrous until we have given up trying to make sense of the world, and thereby given up on the characters within it. There are certain things that we can tolerate on the basis of generic convention - for instance, time seeming to stand still so Austin and Felicity can have a moment when the base is about to explode. But when you try to work out how the moon base actually got there, or how Fat Bastard hasn't aged in 30 years, there'll be precious little else that you can tolerate.
When it comes to the actual humour of The Spy Who Shagged Me, the jokes fall into two camps. The first camp consists of jokes which are deeply derivative, adding weight to the view of this film as a hurried cash-in. Even die-hard Bond fans make fun of Moonraker, so setting the entire third act in space isn't exactly pushing the envelope. Moreover the Star Wars jokes seem to have been included simply because the Special Editions had recently come out. Not only are the jokes two years late, but they say nothing that Mel Brooks didn't do in Spaceballs more than a decade prior to this.
The second camp consists of jokes which might have some potential but are so laboured that they might as well not have bothered. The tent scene, involving sexual suggestion with shadows, takes one half-decent gag about the positioning of Austin's backside and draws it out so much that it becomes embarrassing. The montage of penis euphemisms is quite funny the first time around, but to do it again so quickly smacks of desperation. Both examples are indicative of Roach's lack of discipline and confidence in the material: rather than working hard to give the audience new joke, he keeps cutting back to the same joke way after the punch-line because he simply has nothing else to give.
On top of all this, the film is pretty mean-spirited. Neither Fat Bastard nor Mini Me are particularly funny in their own way: both are essentially one-joke roles that don't move the plot forward in any manner. But what's worse is that the film derives much of its humour from laughing at their respective sizes, something which is neither funny nor clever. Fat Bastard exists only to make fun of fat people, with his sex scene with Heather Graham being as painful to watch as his schmaltzy monologue at the end. As for Mini Me, he exists only to be thrown around, punched and to crawl around inside Austin's suit before being farted out into space. Put simply, you know that your film's in bad shape when a cameo by Will Ferrell is the least of your problems - and as before, he brings the whole plot to a shuddering halt.
Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me is a great case study of how not to make a comedy sequel. Not only does it neglect, ignore or reverse everything that made the first film work, but it has a meaner, crueller streak which undoes whatever comic potential remains in Myers' performances. Its jokes are flat and lazy, Roach's direction is aimless and the story is far weaker than the first first. Myers' comic talent remains somewhere in the mix, but as Pierce Brosnan quipped in Goldeneye, it's not exactly his finest hour.

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