Austin Powers: The International Mystery Man At 25 years !
Deep beneath the arid Nevada desert, Austin Powers finally corners his nemesis, Dr. Evil, in his own secret underground layer. It’s one of the few scenes in the film that doesn’t turn into an elaborate comedic setting. The cartoonish antagonist presents Austin with his cynical view of the world – that freedom has failed. All the virtues and indulgences that Austin and his innocent youthful generation once cherished are now considered evil; doesn’t that make him the same? Not only did the cultural trajectory fail him, but his own generation, now in power, betrayed its own ideals. Why shouldn’t Austin join the beardless Belgian with a Ph.D. and go… evil?
Buried beneath cultural references, genre parodies, zeitgeist-engulfing catchphrases and painted-by-numbers world domination intrigue is the beating heart of Austin Powers: The International Mystery Man: a man who adapts to a changing world where his values no longer prevail. His understanding of what was cool, his concepts of sexuality, and his entire relationship with society were literally frozen in time – crystallized in 60s swing ideas of misogynistic free love and war-defying counterculture.
Reintroduced at the end of the 20th century, its hot goo culture shock reflects the helpless unease of many today who feel lost in the blurring of Western culture’s ever-changing mores and values. They are frightened and outraged by a world they don’t understand, a world in which they are no longer relevant. They become cynical and elitist or, even worse, conservative. Austin Powers’ character embodies the solace of looking back on his glory days as the film surrounds him with references to the familiar, making his youthful experience relevant again.
The culture is obnoxiously contradictory. He persists, always forward, while always looking back with a nostalgic sigh and smile. In the 1990s, we were above the narcissistic excess of the 1980s and looked back on our psychedelic past with a desire for “authenticity”. Bell bottoms, environmentalism, the Volkswagen Beetle and a more hippie aesthetic came back into fashion.
At the time, Mike Myers was finishing his stint as a colorful member of the Saturday Night Live cast, playing beloved characters who hosted things like Streisand-loving Linda Richman and the stoically German Dieter. Myers came off the springboard SNL at the box office with its oversized characters: two feature film versions of the hit sketch Wayne’s Worldand the original and beloved, So I married an ax murderer. He formed a 60s retro-mod band called Ming Tea with Susanna Hoffs of the Bangles and singer/songwriter Matthew Sweet. All of the members adopted psychedelic personas, including Myers, who played frontman Austin Powers.
Myers said the “mystery man” is a tribute to his father and his father’s cultural influence on him as a young man. Although reputedly Canadian, Myers’ parents are both originally from Liverpool and introduced the comedian to James Bond and 1960s British music and comedy. The resulting film is a comedy snowball. and culture which covers the second half of the 20and century.
The most overt reference is to the world of British secret agent James Bond. Austin’s blue velvet suit is a Technicolor adaptation of George Lazenby in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Dr Evil is inspired by Bond’s nemesis Ernst Stavro Blofeld, specifically the one played by Donald Pleasance in You only live twice down to the bald head, the gray Nehru costume and the feline companion. His motivation is a parodied amalgamation of many Bond villains bent on world domination like Karl Stromberg and Hugo Drax. Much of the set design is an economic forgery of Sir Ken Adam’s work. Adam production designed much of the Bond series as well as Dr Strangelovewhose War Room is the base of the world leaders’ headquarters in the film.
The comedy is a potpourri of post-war greatest hits as well as a prototype for future comic style. The film uses a classic fish-out-of-water storyline but can use it twice with Austin and Dr. Evil playing with their aesthetic incongruity. Just like the Zucker brothers did with Airplane! and the Naked Gun franchise, the rate of jokes in the film is breathtaking. It’s a Gatling gun of tropes, references, callbacks, and physical comedy that hits the mark more often than not. Even the straight characters that are mostly used for exposition get the Monty Python treatment which has dry, serious characters saying and doing stupid things. The humor is very skit-like in that it winks at the audience and isn’t shy about cracking a funny, albeit cheap, joke. The dialogue even hints at the next major comedic voice, Judd Apatow, with his tangents that strive to explain or describe specific cultural references. We even get a taste of Will Ferrell as Mustafa, doing his histrionic, wordy, no-interior-monologue thing.
Even if you’ve seen it thousands of times and think you know all the jokes, the density allows for some delicious surprises. For me, the k-turn in a hallway is perfect and always catches me off guard.
Austin Powers’ most pervasive and enduring contribution is the impact it has had on our lexicon. The 1990s were filled with noteworthy comedies thanks in large part to Myers and the meteor that was our introduction to Jim Carrey. I remember buying an Austin Powers watch from KB Toys which, yes, told the time but, more importantly, told me a rotation of movie slogans. Myers had double the fun with his two cartoonish characters who each have a long list of phrases that have been laser etched into the minds of millions. From Austin’s simple “yeah, baby” and “am I making you horny, baby” to Dr. Evil’s elaborate “shhh” with his son Scott (Seth Green), the quote was, for better or for worse. worse, at its peak.
The decline in the number of comedies being produced, especially those with cartoon-like leads, has dramatically reduced the rate of movie citations entering the patois of popular culture. The additions of Borat and Ron Burgundy are among the few to break through on a similar level. Whether it’s delivered with a heartfelt reference or with more or less irony, on a clear night you can still hear an “oh, behave yourself” 25 years later.
After a quarter of a century, Austin Powers: The International Mystery Man is always a smashing way to spend an hour and a half. Myers is clearly having fun, but I have to attribute much of my enjoyment, coincidentally, to nostalgia. The nostalgia I have for this piece of nostalgia at a time when I am acutely aware of my own growing inadequacy for popular culture.
In the aforementioned scene where Dr. Evil attempts to convince Austin to go evil, he engages with the spirit of what he believed to be the counterculture, which young people of his generation considered important before maturity and the world has corrupted their vision. Austin recognizes that as adults, there is now a responsibility. For me, this responsibility is to respect and facilitate the sincere and just passion of the younger generations; not getting mad at them and the changes they make because it’s a sign of my own irrelevance and mortality. Dr. Evil responds to Austin’s rebuke with a sharp burn: “There’s nothing worse than an aging hipster.” Which is sad but inevitable. The thing is, you only look like a grumpy asshole when you try to refute it.
Although it may seem like Austin is really just me and a lot of other bitter adults in a nutshell, in reality, it’s me in a nutshell: “Help!” I am in one word! How did I get into this nutshell? Look at the size of that damn big nut shell! What kind of shell does a nut like this have? It’s crazy!”
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