2002 rewatch: All didn't glitter for Austin Powers in Goldmember
Every week, Entertainment Weekly is looking back at the biggest movies of the summer of 2002. As audiences struggled to understand the new post-9/11 world order, Hollywood found itself in a moment of transition, with upcoming stars and soon-to-be-forever franchises playing alongside startling new visions and fading remnants of the old normal. Join us for a rewatch of the first true summer of Hollywood's strange new millennium. Last week: Sad gangsters. This week: Leah Greenblatt and Devan Coggan go panning for platinum in Austin Powers in Goldmember. Next week: M. Night Shyamalan runs crop circles around Signs.
LEAH: He landed like a neutron flower bomb in 1997, Mike Myers' groovy thawed-out super-spy from the Swinging '60s: velvet of suit, wonky of tooth, and ready to shag the global box office into submission. Nobody expected Austin Powers to make that much money when it debuted — and it actually didn't, really. But the first installment, International Man of Mystery, also didn't cost very much to produce, and it made a ton back on home video (remember that?). And so two more films, and a supremely wiggy cultural phenomenon, were born.
Goldmember is probably most famous now for being the last entry in the series, if not the most financially successful — 1999's The Spy Who Shagged Me topped out at over $300 million — and for marking the big-screen debut of a 19-year-old R&B singer name Beyoncé Knowles. She was still two years away from becoming Destiny's chosen Child (the group split for good in 2004), but arguably already a burgeoning superstar, and her Foxxy Cleopatra is one of the sweeter things in a movie concept that at this point was pretty much running on fumes. Myers still got to max out his alter egos, though, playing Powers, his wormy nemesis Dr. Evil, the obese Scottish assassin Fat Bastard, and the villain of the title, a loopy Dutchman with a dong of gold.
And he pulled in endless cameos too: Tom Cruise in Powers' soft-serve bob and lacy jib, and Gwyneth Paltrow as the breathless, big-haired Dixie Normous in a winky film-within-a-film called Austinpussy; Britney Spears, Steven Spielberg, Danny DeVito, John Travolta and (whoops) Kevin Spacey. I swear that's Katie Couric as a unibrowed prison guard? I mean, this movie has Michael Caine! In a wig and weird dentures! Doing the Austin's-absentee-dad thing, excellently.
But the plot, such as it is, centers on Powers going back to 1975 to stop Dr. Evil and his motley crew from co-opting the weapons of one Johan van der Smut, a.k.a. Goldmember — Smut lost his twig and berries in a smelting accident, hence the nom de guerre — to harness a meteor and destroy the earth (How? We're not scientists; ask Bill Nye). Foxxy, who is clearly modeled on blaxploitation goddess Pam Grier, has a lot of snazzy little outfits and a few good lines. But she's mostly there, it seems, to color an almost relentlessly white franchise, and do her part for the cause of sexy Halloween costumes.
Much like Beyoncé and many other females in these movies who gaze upon Austin's medieval dental work and even more antique sexual politics with gentle, head-shaking bemusement, I realize we're supposed to take exactly zero percent of this seriously. But Devan, you tell me — was the whole thing ever your bag, baby? And how does it hold up for revisiting as a grown lady?
DEVAN: I wouldn't say that I was a fan of Austin Powers, at least not the first time around. His particular brand of gross-out gags and vintage flair never really hit with me, and as a kid, most of the Bond homages soared right over my head, much like Powers' psychedelic neon jet. But growing up in the late '90s/early '00s, this shagadelic spy was everywhere, a groovy, velvet-clad phenomenon who danced his way into the cultural lexicon. Seemingly everyone I know had a Dr. Evil impression in their back pocket, ready to deploy anytime they heard the phrase "one million dollars." Even my parents kept a spare house key on a talking Dr. Evil keychain. (Over the years, the batteries started to corrode, so we'd occasionally hear "Why must I be surrounded by frickin' idiots?" echoing through the house, unprompted.) Two decades later, Powers still holds cultural sway: Quotes and music cues from the films regularly go viral on TikTok, suggesting that this frozen-in-time spy still endures.
I have no specific memory of seeing Goldmember for the first time, but I must have at some point, probably in someone's basement at a middle-school sleepover, late at night after half the girls had already passed out in their sleeping bags. Revisiting it now, it feels less like a film and more like a collection of half-baked sketch ideas. Even by Austin Powers standards, the plot is nonsensical, zinging from gag to gag with zero narrative consistency: Here's Britney Spears spraying fembot bullets from her boobs! Here's a prison rap music video! Here's an interlude with the Osbournes! (Remember when the Osbournes were the biggest family on reality TV? Oh, 2002.)
You can see Myers' interest starting to wane, even before he starts recycling jokes. His newest villain is barely a character, and the eerily pasty Goldmember mostly just feels like an excuse for Myers to don more weird prosthetics. And we haven't even mentioned all the uncomfortable Asian jokes, which weren't funny in 2002 and aren't funny now. Still, the pure star power on display here speaks to just how big Austin really was. Today, even the buzziest Marvel movie couldn't get Tom Cruise and Gwyneth Paltrow and Steven Spielberg and John Travolta. (Besides, any movie with a Danny DeVito cameo gets an extra gold star from me.)
But as you noted, the most interesting thing about Goldmember will always be Queen Bey. The Destiny's Child alum went on to star in The Pink Panther, Dreamgirls, and Cadillac Records, but Goldmember will always be her big debut, and she comes off surprisingly well here. It's hard to reconcile this loose, goofy version of B with the modern pop legend who now controls her image with a tight, perfectly manicured fist. There's a warmth and playfulness to her performance here. Even in a flick filled with fart jokes and a shot of Verne Troyer humping her leg, Beyoncé still seems… well, cool. Beyoncé will always be cool.
What about you, Leah? Did Goldmember work for you, or does this film deserve to go back on ice?
LEAH: I'm sorry Devan, I'm still stuck on the idea of your parents' dying Dr. Evil keychain with its corroded batteries, softly belching "friiickinnnn idddioootts" into the post-human emptiness of some dystopian future Wall-E world. I would pay good money to see that Blumhouse movie.
But I totally agree, I didn't realize quite how much Austin's "Yeah, baby, yeah!" phrasings had soaked into the lexicon until I watched Goldmember again. It's a testament to the stickiness of Myers' comedic gifts, no doubt, but also to the fact that that kind of monoculture just doesn't exist anymore; instead, all those quotes and needle drops ricochet through the endless echo chambers of TikTok and other social platforms now in a sort of ouroboros loop, like space junk. The third outing does acknowledge its own series fatigue with a lot of fourth-wall winks, which the Osbournes — God, remember Ozzy's giant Millennium Falcon remote? What did it even do? — are handily conscripted into ("Boobs! These filmmakers are just f---ing boobs").
You can feel the script, if this film in fact has one, vamping and killing time; what else is that whole Nathan Lane-as-Foxxy-ventriloquist interlude for? And good Lord, does the stuff with the penis puppetry in that medical exam scene go on. (R.I.P., Verne Troyer, and posthumous apologies for all the leg-humping, pee-cupping indignities you endured in the name of Mini-Me). It's juvenile for sure, and casually offensive in about 87 ways that are no longer kosher in 2022. But like Austin, there's an innocence to the whole thing that's also endearing: a sense of wonder at all the strange, silly things a human body can do, and an almost childlike glee that Myers was allowed to make a movie this deeply ridiculous at all — let alone three of them — with an increasingly head-spinning roster of stars.
We haven't even talked about Fred Savage as the mole with a mole, which I kept waiting for John Candy to come by and flick a quarter at, or debated whether Beyoncé is the one who got Jay Z to sign over the rights to "Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)," since the pair were already dating by then — though I do still love the sheer white-guy accuracy of that jail scene outro. ("This is a shout-out to Hova, God MC/You all know him, that's Jay Z/I met him/Well, I saw him at a restaurant once.") I also thought it was a pretty neat trick to work in real vintage footage of Caine, which is actually a clip from the 1967 Otto Preminger drama Hurry Sundown, except instead of being about racist land grabs in the deep South, it's a reveal that Austin and Dr. Evil are… secret brothers.
Anyway, all was pretty much quiet on the wiggadelic front for the last 20 years until this May, when Myers issued a real verbal pretzel of a non-denial denial about the possibility of slipping back into Austin's big brown incisors again. Would more Powers be a good thing, Devan, or has that velveteen ship sailed?
DEVAN: I thought about that as I was rewatching. The last two decades have brought dozens of other spy-movie send-ups, from the ultraviolent Kingsman franchise to Melissa McCarthy's delightful slapstick in Spy. (Still holding out hope for that Spy sequel.) Is there even a place for Austin Powers anymore, or should he hang up the frilly ascot for good?
I'm not sure. That being said, I would be curious to see what Austin would make of the dour Daniel Craig era of Bond. The self-serious 007 of the 21st century is a far cry from the loopy '60s movies that Austin loves to lampoon. Still, maybe Austin's spirit still endures: It's objectively hilarious that the big twist in 2015's Spectre is that James Bond and Blofeld are also... secret brothers. Maybe Goldmember is more golden than we thought.
Read past 2002 rewatches:
- 2002 rewatch: Road to Perdition brought prestige to blockbuster season. But was it any good?
- Men in Black II wastes everyone's charms
- Mr. Deeds launched Adam Sandler's biggest decade, for better or worse
- Lilo & Stitch still packs an emotional punch
- The influence and disappointments of Minority Report
- How The Bourne Identity reinvented action for a new millennium
- The Sum of All Fears was somehow too late and too early
- Insomnia was a flawed but promising daylight noir from pre-Batman Christopher Nolan
- Star Wars: Episode 2—Attack of the Clones is still fascinating and confusing
- Unfaithful brought sex to the summer
- Spider-Man still swings high one multiverse later