Bond and Gagged
Even as it stifles content in other movies, the MPAA lets the funny, saucy "Austin Powers" sail through
By Jim Ridley, Donna Bowman, and Noel Murray
JUNE 14, 1999: What a difference a snigger makes. A couple years ago, the concentration-camp drama Bent showed a quick, none-too-explicit gay orgy scene. The movie was slapped with an NC-17 and subsequently doomed to commercial oblivion. Yet in Austin Powers The Spy Who Shagged Me, there's a lengthy gag predicated entirely on the appearance that Heather Graham is fisting Mike Myers. Fisting, hell; she winds up pounding a tennis racket up his bum. If the makers of Bent had even hinted at anything like that, the movie would've been banished to some pit of darkest iniquity--or worse, Cinemax.
But The Spy Who Shagged Me has a solid, upstanding PG-13, and thanks to the good folks at the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), kids will be reenacting the scene this summer at camps all over America. Not to mention the most dick jokes ever heard outside a urologists' convention. Not to mention even the title, which manages to sneak a silly-sounding British vulgarity onto megaplex marquees. Don't expect the Brits to return the favor and call it The Spy Who Fucked Me.
This isn't to make some prudish point about the movie itself, which is, if anything, even more tasteless than the original and funnier for it. However, it does say something about the prudishness of our ratings board--and by extension, us--that the MPAA penalizes serious, thoughtful sexual content, even as it ushers in far more salacious material with a wink and a giggle.
The idea, I suppose, is that a flash of actual sexuality is more objectionable--obscene? titillating? inspiring?--than laugh-it-up innuendo, however extreme. But when Mike Myers' mop-topped superstud struts past a buffet table, butt-nekkid, with his ying-yang obscured by suspiciously erect foodstuffs, does the MPAA think anyone past the age of 10 won't get the joke? If the ratings board's aim is to protect the young'uns from lewdness, it's shooing a single cow out of the gate while a herd of buffalo tramples the fence.
Especially since The Spy Who Shagged Me gets its biggest laughs thumbing its nose at the MPAA. In the sequel to the surprise 1997 blockbuster, Myers reprises his role as randy secret agent Powers, a groovy British sex machine cryogenically frozen at max testosterone in the swinging '60s. Thawed in the '90s with libido and velvet threads intact, Powers is a POW from the sexual revolution. His nemesis, Dr. Evil (also played by Myers)--who looks like Otto Preminger and sounds like Myers' old SNL boss Lorne Michaels--figures that the key to Powers' effectiveness is his sex drive, and he zips back in time 30 years to swipe the studsicle's "mojo." Suddenly feeling less than shagadelic, Powers enlists his female counterpart, Felicity Shagwell (Graham), to save the world from laser death--and to help get back that lovin' feeling.
Myers, his cowriter Michael McCullers, and director Jay Roach thus zero in on the myriad sexual hang-ups--castration anxiety, terror of commitment, and squeamishness about the act itself--that underlie their chief inspiration, the James Bond/Derek Flint superspy flicks of the '60s. I mean, did anybody ever have more interrupted sex than James Bond? The funniest running gags in Austin Powers carry this bewildering combo of innuendo and modesty to its loony extreme. When Myers isn't prancing naked behind oversized meat platters or unfurling Dr. Evil's awakening libido to the strains of "Let's Get It On," he's finding ways to list every penis euphemism ever coined without troubling a single censor. (One tactic: visiting celebs named Willie and Woody.)
Better paced than the original, The Spy Who Shagged Me offers plenty more belly laughs, from Rob Lowe's uncanny Robert Wagner imitation to the identity of Dr. Evil's shelter company. There are also the expected slow stretches, and Myers' Scottish routine is the biggest groaner since Red Buttons' "Never got a dinner." But Myers' put-upon Dr. Evil, who gets more screen time than one-joke Powers, dominates the film as surely as a Blofeld, whether he's hashing out family woes on Jerry Springer or using a global-attack scenario to stage a Great Santini psychodrama.
Nevertheless, what's funniest about Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me is its knack for being filthy and innocent at the very same time--just like Heather Graham's smile. In the '60s, when movies were starting to stretch the bounds of screen sexuality, the Bond/Flint films were a safe haven of leering without actual lust--something the Bond series has maintained to this day. As a result, smirky Bond bagged more babes than Wilt Chamberlain, yet coasted through the '70s without a single R rating; meanwhile, the honest, adventuresome likes of Carnal Knowledge and Last Tango in Paris fell prey to X's and obscenity hearings. Even today, movies like Spike Lee's upcoming Summer of Sam and Lars von Trier's The Idiots face the economic sanction of an NC-17 unless they kowtow to the MPAA's demands. Few kids will get to see these, or would ever want to. But it's nice of the ratings board to let The Spy Who Shagged Me clue them in to things far worse than what they're missing.
Touched by an angelThere's something uncomfortably elitist about hearing people say that they like foreign films. Surely foreign films can't easily be lumped into a single genre and appreciated en masse. Isn't the cinema of Europe as different from that of Asia as it is from Hollywood? Even the range of French and Italian filmmaking--what people used to mean when they said "foreign film"--encompasses an impossibly diverse world, from the intense detail work of De Sica or Ophuls to the extravagant emotions of Fellini or Clouzot.
Yet a recognizable "foreignness" still pervades films like The Dreamlife of Angels (La Vie Revee des Anges), an approach to story and character that we can characterize instantly as originating outside our borders. The movie seems to have been made for a different audience; it does not bother to provide backstory or give any clues about what its characters are like before they reveal themselves in action. It seems foreign because it breaks the focus-group, test-audience rules that govern the films we see week in and week out, even the so-called "independents." That freedom, expressed here in a slice-of-life story about two young women thrown together through labor and love, is what draws American audiences tired of being analyzed before they reach the box office.
We are dropped into the film in medias res, as Isabelle (Elodie Bouchez) arrives in the French city of Lille to find that the friend she'd counted on staying with has disappeared. (It's only sometime later that we learn that the girl's name is Isabelle and that the city is Lille. Already we've crossed the border--an American film would have given us this information with a helicopter shot, a superimposed title, and, if necessary, a nametag.) Isa shows up for work at a clothing factory and cadges a place to stay from her fellow sewing-machine operator Marie (Natacha Regnier). In a matter of days the two have become friends, teasing strangers in malls and picking up odd jobs together. Their attempts to get into a club for free lead to dates with the club's bouncers, bikers named Charley and Fredo. When Marie starts sleeping with the club owner, a privileged jerk named Chris, Isa disapproves and their friendship grows strained.
At the same time, Isa develops a strange relationship with the owner of Marie's flat, a girl hospitalized in a coma after a car accident. She visits regularly and reads from the incapacitated girl's diary. Slowly Isa and Marie begin to show their true colors, switching places in the audience's mind. Isa, who appeared flighty and shallow in the opening scenes, reveals her ability to make instant but real connections with nearly anyone. But Marie, we discover, barely survives under a crushing lack of self-esteem. She holds herself aloof from what she imagines is beneath her, like begging or handing out fliers, while she squats in a borrowed flat and takes money from her boyfriend. Homeless Isa, it turns out, holds herself together, while Marie goes to pieces.
Nearly every character has unexpressed complexities, the kind that get you discussing who they really were after the lights come up. Is Charley, the leather-studded biker, a secret softie? Or do the crumpled bills he presses into Marie's hands signal his essentially mercenary nature? A more familiar approach to this story--an American approach--would have been to clarify each person's real character traits, if not at the outset, then at least eventually. Yet Erick Zonca, who directed and cowrote The Dreamlife of Angels, leaves to us truly important decisions about who these people are and what their actions mean. And his final shot, a dolly down a row of working women with a pause at each face, introduces a new theme about labor rather than wrapping up any of the themes we've already recognized.
Until the final scenes, it's not clear whether anything we would conventionally term "significant" is going to happen in The Dreamlife of Angels. And for someone who has fallen in love with the film's foreignness, it's possible to view that final significant occurrence as a betrayal--a concession to an audience that demands an ending. Yet it's consistent with the overall message of the film: the human need to instantly judge those we meet versus the impossibility of ever really knowing them.
When the film ended, I found myself saying, "That's the kind of film I like"--and then had to wonder what I meant by that. If it's elitist to enjoy foreign films because as a group they exhibit a refreshing liberty from our expectations, because they tend to have more courage in presenting flawed or unlikable characters and ambiguous situations, I suppose I'm guilty. But I don't just like foreign films, period; I like movies about real people, in all their exasperating, untidy difficulties. The true question isn't about elitism, but about whether the audience to whom American films regularly pander isn't like me--hungry for something more.
StargazingHugh Grant returns to his roots in small, eccentric British comedy in the charming Notting Hill, which only qualifies as a big-time blockbuster due to a jolt of real star power from Julia Roberts. Grant plays an unsuccessful bookshop owner with a circle of equally unsuccessful friends. Roberts is the movie star who goes from browsing in Grant's shop to taking long walks with him through the romantic London streets. Are they falling in love, or is each attracted to the mere trappings of their respective lives?
Notting Hill was written by Richard Curtis, who wrote Four Weddings and a Funeral, and this film has similarities in its tale of seemingly unattainable love and the likable schlub who somehow attains it. But director Roger Michell downplays the whimsy in favor of a slightly more desperate edge--the story is mostly about Grant pining for Hollywood's version of the ideal woman, who suddenly and surprisingly comes within his reach.
The film is still as funny as you'd expect--and also as sentimental, which means that it indulges the sappy and artificial more than it should--but there are moments where it startles the audience with the harsh reality of the celebrity lifestyle, from tabloid intrusiveness to the way people alter their personalities when they meet someone famous. Credit Roberts for making the emotions palpable: Playing a variation on her own on- and off-screen persona, she keeps her character so guarded that her moments of openness are like little gifts bestowed upon us. And when she blows up at Grant in a tense morning-after scene, she comes off as such a bitch that we wonder along with Grant whether she's worth the trouble.
Of course, we all know what happens in the movies after boy loses girl; Notting Hill is no revelation as far as that's concerned. Nor is the "celebrities are people too" theme exactly fresh; EdTV died with it a few months ago. What distinguishes the film is its oft-forlorn, last-day-of-summer-camp quality. It's bad enough that Grant gets smitten with a woman who lives several time zones away. But when he can't walk a block without seeing her picture plastered on the side of a bus...well, that's heartache, man.
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