Austin Powers Is Back With A Frenzy of Cesspool Humor

Jay Roach’s Austin Powers in Goldmember , from a screenplay by Mr. Myers and Michael McCullers, comes with an admonition from the producers to critics not to reveal the names of the surprise star-cameo participants in the proceedings. Since these provide just about the only laughs in the movie, it would be churlish of me to give this small part of the show away. Yet even in the trivial realm of jack-in-the-box celebrity gags, this third Austin Powers romp runs a poor second to Robert Altman’s The Player (1992) a decade ago.

Mr. Myers has stated in interviews that the enormous popular success of what has come to be acknowledged as the Austin Powers franchise came as a complete surprise to him. I don’t doubt it, since nothing seems quite as doomed as self-parody (Austin Powers) of a self-parody (James Bond). Yet Austin Powers, International Man of Mystery (1997), which Mr. Myers created, wrote, produced and starred in, with Mr. Roach directing, went on to gross more than $200 million. The inevitable sequel, Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (1999), went through the roof to make more than $300 million. Perhaps in the fervent hope that Austin Powers in Goldmember would escalate the franchise to $400 million, Austin Powers and his four alter egos have struck again.

To that end, it was indispensable that the movie receive a PG-13 rating rather than an R, which it did despite what the MPAA describes as “sexual innuendo, crude humor, and language.” After the critics’ screening a colleague asked me semi-rhetorically, “What do you have to do to get an R rating these days?” I didn’t answer, although I knew that the slightest glimpse of a bare breast, the merest suggestion of an erotically charged scene or, of course, full male and/or female frontal nudity-if only for an instant-would have guaranteed an R.

The point is that, while somehow successfully walking that ratings tightrope, Austin Powers in Goldmember is the most relentlessly scatological exhibition I have ever seen short of golden-showers pornography. The words “urine,” “excrement” and “penis” are never uttered, but what isn’t said is being constantly pantomimed. And there is a prolonged bit of business about a facial mole that comes close to being politically incorrect.

Mr. Myers, the Canadian changeling from the second generation of Saturday Night Live , is a gifted mimic with both verbal and physical wit and a creatively wide-ranging satiric imagination. He is not without a certain charm. Yet I can’t help feeling that he and his associates decided to wing it this time and see if it made any difference to their target audience. Perhaps it won’t. For my part, I prefer not to analyze a spectacle so awash in formlessness and facetiousness, not to mention a frenzy of cesspool humor. Michael Caine as Austin’s father, Nigel, and Beyoncé Knowles as Foxxy Cleopatra would have been welcome additions to Austin’s cosmos if there had been a trace of coherent narrative in which they could construct their characters. Instead, it’s all amateur-night vaudeville and movies within movies that degenerate into total inanity.

Underage Charm

Gary Winick’s Tadpole , from a screenplay by Heather McGowan and Niels Mueller, is hardly the first film to describe the mutual attraction between an underaged male and a mature female, but it’s one of the more charming of the recent entries in the genre from both sides of the Atlantic. Sixteen-year-old Oscar Grubman (played with astute pomposity and transparent self-importance by 23-year-old Aaron Stanford) falls madly in love with his middle-aged stepmother, Eve (played with warmth and sparkle by Sigourney Weaver). But while maladroitly pursuing Eve, poor Oscar is waylaid by Eve’s best woman friend, Diane (Bebe Neuwirth), a voracious man-and-boy-eating masseuse. Oscar’s pathetically clueless father, Stanley (John Ritter), has no idea what’s going on with either Oscar or Eve. When Eve learns of Oscar’s feelings toward her, she kisses him gently and tells him that she loves his father. Oscar recovers quickly from his romantic setback and begins acting his own age by dating a young girl he had previously spurned for lacking “experience.”

This fraught situation could easily have turned ugly or silly with acting, writing and direction of less tact, taste and resiliency. We certainly have come a long way from the pseudo-innocent days of The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (1947), when Shirley Temple competed with Myrna Loy for the affections of Cary Grant. But though I applaud the trend toward older women and younger men as on-screen romantic partners, our society has a long way to go before it can be said to accept all the realities of “underage” sexuality. On this tricky topic, Tadpole is very much a step in the right direction, with its blend of frankness, civility and compassion.

The Trials of an Actress’ Husband

Yvan Attal’s My Wife Is an Actress ( Ma Femme Est une Actrice ), from his own screenplay, is a moderately affecting attempt to meld fact with fiction by imagining how Yvan (the name of both the character and the auteur) would react if his real-life wife, the French movie star Charlotte Gainsbourg (simply “Charlotte” in the movie) made him jealous by the persuasiveness of her on-screen love scenes with other men.

Mr. Attal has been acting in French and British films since 1989, but My Wife Is an Actress marks his feature-film directorial debut. Behind the camera and in the editing room, he manages to keep the Pirandellian pathology of the situation

under control, as his acting alter ego explores the paradoxes that come with a life spent mixing make-believe and reality. Eventually, one suspects that there is not all that much difference between the two.

On one level, Mr. Attal is paying loving tribute to his actress-wife, but on another, he is reliving the 1,001 petty slights suffered by non-celebrities married to celebrities . Imagine, for instance, trying to make a reservation at a chic restaurant for a decent hour under your own name and being offered a midnight seating, while your movie-star wife calls and gets the same maitre d’ to give you a 9 p.m. seating. Or a traffic cop politely forgiving you for speeding, but only after your movie-star wife smiles at him. After a while, Yvan, a macho sportswriter, joins an acting troupe and promptly begins making out with one of the actresses, only to discover ruefully that she is easily distracted from him on a restaurant date by the presence of recognizable celebrities nearby.

Yvan’s jealousy takes off into the stratosphere when Charlotte does a nude sex scene with her screen lover John, played by the marvelously aged British actor Terence Stamp, who adds a comic dimension to the film with his banal womanizing lines about the “real art” of painting in which he dabbles, as opposed to the “lower art” of movie acting. The comic self-effacement of Mr. Stamp’s character keeps the film light and airy, and avoids needlessly suspenseful complications that would cloud the central concept.

Mr. Attal does his part as a director to keep his two co-protagonists only vaguely disaffected and only slightly disconnected, thus forestalling any terminal disruptions. For the most part, My Wife Is an Actress is bright, pleasant and intelligent entertainment with no undue alarums or excursions. This degree of comic restraint and emotional balance is not all that easy to attain in telling a story of life in what amounts to a marital goldfish bowl.

A False Friend

Sandra Goldbacher’s Me Without You , from a screenplay by Ms. Goldbacher and Laurence Coriat, follows the obsessive friendship of two women, Marina (Anna Friel) and Holly (Michelle Williams), from their childhood in 70’s London through the 80’s. After many stormy interludes, the relationship ruptures, a casualty of the flashier and prettier Marina’s tendency to dominate and exploit the self-doubting Holly.

There are several problems with the development of the narrative. Most important is the unequal allocation of audience sympathy between Marina and Holly. There is nothing admirable about the vain, selfish, intellectually unambitious and even disloyal Marina. All that can be said in her defense is that she is the product of a broken marriage, the child of a grotesquely self-absorbed and self-pitying mother (Trudie Styler) and a wandering minstrel of a father (Nicky Henson).

Not that the likable Holly has any picnic at home. Though her sturdy Jewish father, Max (Allan Corduner), ends up as a supportive and consoling presence for both Holly and Marina, her impatient mother, Judith (Deborah Findlay), constantly undermines Holly’s self-esteem with disparaging remarks about her looks. As the decades roll by, Holly ends up looking more attractive, in an unaffected way, than the perpetually preening and hair-color-changing Marina. The long span of the story, with the passing years marked by changing pop tunes, chops the scenes between Holly and Marina into mere sound bites. The men in their lives drift in and out, with only Holly ending up in a happy marriage to her longtime love, Marina’s older brother Nat (Oliver Milburn)-predictably, much to Marina’s dismay.

A Dench-Irons Flashback

David Jones’ Langrishe, Go Down (1978), from a screenplay by Harold Pinter, based on the novel by Aidan Higgins, provides us, at the very least, with an opportunity to see what Jeremy Irons and Judi Dench looked and acted like almost a quarter of a century ago. The story takes place in the Dublin countryside during the 1930’s. Ms. Dench plays Imogen Langrishe, a lonely single woman of aristocratic Anglo-Irish origins stranded on a decaying estate. She allows herself to be seduced by an impoverished 35-year-old German graduate student named Otto Beck who is working on a hopelessly esoteric thesis. The affair ends badly, with Imogen taking a shot at the fleeing German. In between, the fragmented storytelling is, well, vintage Pinter, but Ms. Dench and Mr. Irons remain mesmerizing after all this time.

German Anarchists Face the Music

Gregor Schnitzler’s What to Do in Case of Fire? , from a screenplay by Stefan Daehnert and Anne Wild, answers that question with a defiant “Let it burn.” Yet the movie’s bark is worse than its bite, as six former squatters in an empty Berlin apartment building come together after 12 years to plot a raid on a heavily guarded police station with the goal of retrieving some incriminating film footage that identifies them as destructive anarchists from another era. A largely unfamiliar German cast acts out the familiar challenges facing former revolutionaries after the revolution has been filed away as a lost cause in the world of capitalist careerism. Nothing much is resolved at the end, beyond establishing a few amiable ironies. Interesting, but not compelling.

Austin Powers Is Back With A Frenzy of Cesspool Humor