Thunderballs

Reviews of the latest films.
June 11 1999 3:30 AM

Thunderballs

Austin Powers trips back to the '60s.

Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me
Directed by Jay Roach
New Line Cinema

Limbo
Directed by John Sayles
Sony/Screen Gems

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Early in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, the stumpy, snaggletoothed British secret agent (Mike Myers) survives an assassination attempt by his new bride, Vanessa (Elizabeth Hurley), who turns out to have been a "fembot" programmed by his nemesis, Dr. Evil (also Myers), to blow up the couple's honeymoon suite after 15 rounds of zealous humping. Following a suitable period of mourning for his exploded mate (five seconds), Austin greets his restored bachelorhood with a frenzy of exhibitionism--romping nude through the lobby of his posh hotel, pointing out his privates to assorted female passers-by, and launching into a lengthy water ballet in the company of Esther Williams-style chorines. Watching this sequence, I thought of the late David Niven, who, during the 1974 Academy Awards ceremony, saw a streaker charge across the stage and brought the house down with an ad-lib about the fellow "showing off his shortcomings." Niven wouldn't get a laugh here: Myers has rendered himself invulnerable to the incinerating one-liners of prudes and sniggerers. Austin might be oblivious to his own ridiculousness, but Myers isn't. He has made Austin's "shortcomings" the man's strongest suit and the act of showing them off both smashingly funny and--yes--attractive. Forget about defeating Dr. Evil: Austin Powers represents the exuberant conquest of shame.

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The Spy Who Shagged Me is better than anyone dared hope: bigger, more inventive, and more frolicsome than its predecessor, with a grab bag of scatological gags that are almost as riotous when you think back on them. I'm laughing now: The movie gives infantilism a good name. Let me add that I wasn't a fan of the first installment, Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997), which tanked after a lively opening. It was rife with overextended jokes--and the strange thing was that the joke wasn't the joke, the joke was the overextension of the joke. The terrible, flaccid timing was what was supposed to be funny. I wondered: What does it say when a gifted performer such as Myers sets out to make a "bad" movie, the kind of cheeseball '60s Bond imitation that untalented people made by accident? But I underestimated Myers' connection to the material. As a youth, he evidently fantasized about living in London's "swinging" '60s, portrayed in movies as an era when ugly, posturing little guys could routinely make it with long-haired, short-skirted hippie chicks who'd dance ecstatically while the camera zooms in and out. TV shows like Laugh-In and movies like Casino Royale (1967) and In Like Flint (1967) must have got all mashed together in his wet dreams. His resulting alter ego, Austin Powers, is Man before the Fall--provided you see the Fall as the mid-'70s, when embarrassment returned to the culture with a vengeance.

It helps that in The Spy Who Shagged Me, Dr. Evil has soared in stature, becoming nearly as heroic a throwback as Austin himself--the supervillain seeming far more vulnerable to the slings and arrows of ridicule than the superhero. The bald, curdle-faced pinky-sucker is still locked in excruciating combat with his teen-aged son, Scott Evil (Seth Green), who never misses a chance to jeer at his father's grandiosity, and who in turn is dismissed as "quasievil ... semievil." A partially successful cloning attempt by Dr. Evil's henchman, Number 2 (Robert Wagner), has produced a true heir: a one-eighth Dr. Evil replica (Verne J. Troyer) dubbed "Mini-Me" who's like a distillation of the archvillain's most feral impulses. This snarling munchkin gives the Dr. Evil scenes--which still run long--a blast of energy.

Dr. Evil's subtext of sexual jealousy has become his motive. Covetous of Austin Powers' lack of inhibition, he contrives to go back in time--to 1969, when both he and Powers were cryogenically frozen--and steal the source of the secret agent's appeal: his life force, or "mojo." Mojo-less, Austin panics when the opportunity comes to shag CIA agent Felicity Shagwell (Heather Graham); mojo-laden, Dr. Evil leaps into bed with his heretofore lesbian henchwoman Frau Farbissina (Mindy Sterling) but, post-coitus, cannot maintain a guiltless hedonism: "It got weird, didn't it?" he murmurs.

The director, Jay Roach, keeps the picture bumping along, refusing to give the gags more weight than they warrant. Actually, he rarely gives them any weight: The bad jokes don't fall flat so much as blow away like onion skins. The commercial tie-ins--for Starbucks, Virgin Atlantic Airlines, and Heineken--aren't as oppressive as one might fear, although Austin's AOL e-mail address is a cybernetic badge of uncool. You go to a movie like this for the cameos and in-jokes, for Tim Robbins popping up as a harried U.S. president or Burt Bacharach and Elvis Costello emerging to croon (beautifully) "What Do You Get When You Fall in Love?" In the credits, Rob Lowe's name is superimposed over Myers' bare butt. Willie Nelson and Woody Harrelson appear, largely because their first names are euphemisms for "penis." Now there's a riff on You Only Live Twice (1967), now a hyperbolic parody of Thunderball (1965), now a piece of lame slapstick involving an electrical swivel chair. Dr. Evil dispatches a new henchman, a 400-plus pound kilt-wearing Scotsman named Fat Bastard (also Myers) to poke a long needle into the frozen Austin's crotch. Later, Austin mistakenly pours himself a cup of "coffee" from a jar containing a Fat Bastard stool sample. There are also more sophisticated, interlocking parodies, as when grim-faced NORAD radar operators tune in Jerry Springer and find Seth and Dr. Evil in the middle of a show called "My Father Is Evil and Wants To Take Over the World"--a segment that degenerates into bleeping and fisticuffs when the archvillain rushes an indignant Klansman.

No doubt, Heather Graham is one of prettiest women on Earth. Her face has the freshness of a junior-high-school yearbook photo--it might be the apotheosis of the junior-high-school yearbook photo--and there's more than a touch of Barbie in her long thighs and high bottom. She knows how to move and she's sweet and she's game. But, let's face it, she's a twittering blank--a bore. I miss the witty poise that Elizabeth Hurley brought to the first Austin Powers. More than that, I wish that Myers had it in him to cultivate his counterpart as a comic actress and then let her rip--an actress who could be nerdy and alluring at once, who'd have a comeback for, "I put the grrrrr in swinger, baby." I nominate Lisa Kudrow, but there are probably others. You just have to be brave enough to look. For all Myers' fearlessness, he has yet to prove his manhood by letting an equal into his bed.

Limbo, the latest effort from John Sayles, strains to be a great movie, to the point where it breaks into two different movies--neither fully successful, but both with huge compensations. The first is a grimly sardonic portrait of Alaska as a kind of Third World melting pot--full of desperate poverty and crime and on the verge of a transition to a tourist-based economy in which the interior will be cleared of timber but an illusion of wildness maintained. Alaska, we're promised, will turn into a giant, neo-Disney theme park. The other story is the love affair between a luckless torch singer (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) and a luckless ex-fisherman (David Strathairn), in which the two--through a series of melodramatic contrivances that testify to Sayles' lack of ingenuity as a storyteller--end up together with the singer's brilliant, desperately unhappy daughter (Vanessa Martinez) on a remote island, where they're prey to cold, starvation, and drug smugglers with shotguns.

Plotting was never Sayles' forte. What he did have from the start was an actor's insight into how people dramatize themselves and a novelist's insight into how they actually appear. He can write sharp, funny spiels and interlocking monologues in which people misrepresent themselves but somehow--miraculously--communicate their essence. At some point, though, he decided to become a saint of leftist independent filmmaking, to turn away from his real gifts, suppress his craftiness, and make movies about ordinary people crushed by an economic system that sets brother against brother (or sister). He cultivated a wanness in himself; he labored to locate the Canadian within.

At its worst, Limbo is about when bad things happen to good people, and its ending is cruelly abrupt (although maybe merciful if it means what I think it does). But its best is really good. I'm not sure I totally buy Strathairn as a diffident loner with an aching conscience over a tragedy that wasn't his fault--the quintessential guiltless sinner. But Sayles has written some gorgeously tender and funny encounters between him and Mastrantonio. And she is simply extraordinary. Always a superb actress who never quite had the stature for a leap to stardom, Mastrantonio--like Diane Lane in A Walk on the Moon--has developed layers and an edge. Her Donna De Angelo (I hate that tart/angel name) is both desperate to grab onto a man and smart enough to watch in horror as she's grabbing. She has a torch singer's simultaneous immersion and distance--a talent for watching herself fall and for commenting on it exquisitely. This is a major performance, one of the comebacks of the decade.

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