Perfectly timed to ride the hip London Swings Again thang, Mike Myers' British superagent Austin Powers is the comic creation of the year - a snaggle-toothed, horn-rimmed dandy straight out of '60s Soho, who wakes in 1997 to find the world has moved on. Velvet suits and flappy cravats are no longer the epitome of cool, women like Liz Hurley think twice before jumping into bed with chest-wigged goofballs, and it's hard to be a sex symbol when you've got a dentist's nightmare for a gob. Thus this supremely self-regarding '60s trendsetter is suddenly the least with-it man on the planet - and everyone knows it but him.
The struggles of both Austin and arch nemesis Dr Evil to cope with modern life is the main source of jokes in Austin Powers: International Man Of Mystery - an unusually classy variation on the Naked Gun/Airplane school of spoofery that's fantastic fun, despite repeatedly falling back on some of the weakest jokes known to Man. The main reason it's such a laugh is because of scriptwriter and star Myers - as likable a screen presence as he was in Wayne's World, and a man clearly giggling with delight at the chance to mess with an era he so obviously loves. As well as the 007 japes that occupy most of the film, his scattergun wit takes in just about every swinging '60s icon you can think of - Andy Warhol is in there, as are period movies like A Hard Day's Night and Antonioni's Blow-Up, while the whole London scene is recreated perfectly. The exuberant opening, with Powers prancing down Carnaby Street with mods, beatniks and mini-skirted girls, sets the tone, while the musical numbers that come between scenes - in his spare time Powers fronts psychedelic group Ming Tea - are great.
But although one of the film's central jokes is that in '60s London even this self-obsessed troll - Myers delights in making himself look as utterly ridiculous as he can - could be a sex symbol, the majority of the film instead concentrates on the ways both he and nemesis Dr Evil (Myers too, a Nehru jacket and bald-headed make-up turning him into the spitting image of Donald Pleasance in You Only Live Twice) are so badly-equipped to deal with the '90s. For the always on-heat Powers ("I bet she shags like a minx," he slobbers on seeing Hurley), the biggest problem is to stop wittering on about free love and learn to settle for a single girl. The kitty-loving Dr Evil, however, has even worse problems, mostly centring on a brattish Gen X son who hates him, and a secret organisation that pulled out of international terrorism and into legitimate business long ago. It's embarrassed laughs and gazing at the floor all round as an out-of-touch Evil insists on holding the United Nations to ransom for the outrageous amount of... "one million dollars!"
Like former Saturday Night Live regular Myers' last big film, Wayne's World, Austin Powers has its faults, mainly that spoofing 007 isn't exactly the cutting edge of satire, and that the end result never stops feeling like a comedy sketch that's been pulled out to 90 minutes. And yet, amazingly, the whole thing is so likable and done with such utter glee that it's not long before any old crap (a Pussy Galore-alike called Alotta Fagina, for instance) somehow seems hilarious. It's hard to say why Austin works when something like Robin Hood: Men In Tights
so clearly didn't, but it does.
Some films seem as if they were a lot of fun to make, but aren't a joy to watch: Austin Powers works precisely because you can tell everyone's having a ball.
An extremely likable and sporadically hilarious James Bond spoof that never stops feeling like an elongated TV sketch, yet Austin Powers is remarkable in a number of ways: for the production design, for a fantastic Liz Hurley turn as Austin's Mrs Peel-esque sidekick, and for getting away with some of the worst jokes in history.
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