Earlier this week was the 20th anniversary of the release of Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery. Which makes me feel very old. That movie, which came out when I wasn’t quite 12 years old, and its sequels were a staple of my high school years. I am attempting to be more honest about my likes and influences on this blog. Not that I was being dishonest before, but I have a bad habit of going with the critical consensus just because or just keeping my mouth shut when I disagree. In my estimation, the first Austin Powers is a comedy masterpiece.
I, of course, didn’t see it twenty years ago. Like almost everybody else, I first saw Austin Powers when it hit home video, probably a year or so later. I didn’t see it at home. I lived in an ineffective repressive religious household. My brothers and I were not allowed to watch a whole host of things growing up, from wrestling to The Simpsons. Austin Powers, with its blatantly sexual PG-13 jokes, was right out. These household bans were effective as one might expect in a home with more than a handful of boys, all of whom have friends with more lenient parents. I could hit up a friend that live five blocks away and watch most forbidden movies; the same year Austin Powers came out his parents took the two of us to see Starship Troopers, a film with more sexual content than this movie. There were other outlets as well. I knew that at my Grandma’s house there was a VHS tape with a half dozen episodes of The Simpsons recorded on it. All the work that my Mom did to ban these bad influences only made me and my brothers more eager to track them down. With Austin Powers quotes replacing Dumb and Dumber ones with my classmates, it was a movie that I kind of felt I had to see. That being said, I can’t quite remember where I saw it for the first time. Maybe my brother rented it. Maybe I watched it at a friend’s. I know I saw it before the sequel came out and loved it.
I like the Austin Powers sequels, though I won’t argue that they provide anything more than increasingly diminished returns. The first movie, as I remember it, is an incredibly well-made spoof. It fits right in the Mel Brooks mold and I would argue that it is better than any of Brook’s films since High Anxiety. My recollections were confirmed when I sat down and really watched it for the first time in what seems like years last night.
The thing that stood out to me most during this rewatch is how tame it is. For all that Austin Powers the character is all about sex, the movie is truly PG-13 with its sexual content. He says a lot of things that sound dirty, but there is no actual nudity. It is a movie that is largely about sex that is very careful to never actually show it, like in the famous object blocking nudity scenes. There is also almost no cursing, a fact that doesn’t stand out until you start to think about it. I say it fits that arrogant mold that it doesn’t need cursing to be funny, unlike other movies. For all of its eventually annoying catchphrases, Austin Powers has a lot of fun word play. Plus, it’s funnier to hear Dr. Evil say “frikken” instead of actually dropping f-bombs. Those catchphrases are a problem, though. But not a problem with this movie, more a problem with its oversized impact on pop culture. Every asshole spent that latter part of the 90’s quoting Austin Powers and it was never once funny. The same thing happened with Borat, and in neither case is it the movie’s fault.
The catchphrases and their enormous popularity do lead me to the most interesting thing about watching Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery 20 years later; the movie’s relationship to time. It starts in 1967 before Austin is cryogenically frozen for 30 years. While we are not quite as far from his own time as the movie is from ours, it is long enough for the modern stuff to seem as dated as Austin himself does to the other characters. The CD’s that baffle Austin are well on their way to being as dated as his record player. The movie is filled with late 90’s detritus. He’s got a comically small, yet bulky laptop, top of the line in 1997. He uses AOL. Dr. Evil does the Macarena. References that landed perfectly in the late 90’s seem like they are from another century today, which they literally are. The most late 90’s thing in Austin Powers, though, is Austin Powers himself. For all of his 60’s stylings, pulled from Bond and other spy movies as well as The Beatles among many other inspirations, the character exploded to such popularity that nothing is more of the time of its release than Austin Powers.
Still, for all its over-repeated catchphrases, dated references and constant mugging for the camera, Austin Powers remains a very funny movie. Its sexual politics don’t really hold up, not that there was any chance they would when lampooning 60’s spies, but it is a mostly good natured spoof. There is very little punching down. You are laughing at Austin or Dr. Evil and the absurdities of their unfamiliarity with modern life. It is just a charming movie.