Opinion: ‘Austin Powers’ Made Gobs of Money That Would Have Been Better Served Fueling Norm MacDonald’s Biting Sarcasm
When Mike Myers’ SNL skit, Wayne’s World, got spun off into a successful feature film in 1992, he kind of lucked himself into a transition from TV to movies. When he tried to anchor a film all by himself after that though, we got So I Married an Axe Murderer, and that wasn’t nearly as successful. Thankfully for him, that wasn’t the end of Myers’ story, because in 1997 he got another chance to star in a movie, and this time it was in a project that he wrote himself, a project that was tailored to play to all of his strengths as a performer. Said movie was Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, a film so successful that it spawned two sequels, including Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, which got Myers’ Scottish schtick out into the public and likely led to his starring in the Shrek movies. Wayne’s World may have got the guy into the public eye, but it was Austin Powers that made him a gajillionaire.
A year after Myers hit it big with Austin Powers, another SNL alumni got his big chance to star in a feature film. This time around the comedian was Norm MacDonald, and the movie was Dirty Work. Much like Austin Powers before it, Dirty Work was written by its star, and much like that movie, it crafted him a character that played to his unique strengths. Unfortunately, MacDonald’s strengths lie in super-dry deliveries and biting sarcasm, and that didn’t speak to as large an audience as Austin Powers did. But looking back on both films many years later, it becomes clear that it was Dirty Work that more accurately predicted the snarky humor that made so many comedians like Seth Rogen and Paul Rudd famous in the next decade, and Austin Powers just starts to look dated and lame. Was Dirty Work ahead of its time, or did we get it wrong when we came out to support Myers’ film and not MacDonald’s all those years ago?
What do they have in common?
They both star Canadian actors who made names for themselves through being cast members on Lorne Michaels’ long-running star factory, Saturday Night Live. They both pair these goony Canadian comedians up with actresses who are way more attractive than they are too. Oh, and they both get laughs from applying a dude with prosthetic body hair. Other than that there’s not much though, because one is about a secret agent from the ’60s being brought to the ’90s, and the other is about a guy having to figure out how to raise enough money to get his dad a heart operation. Hopefully the similar career paths of the stars is enough to make a meaningful connection.
Why is Austin Powers overrated?
This movie doesn’t really hold up these days, and that’s for a few reasons. The most glaring of which is that Mike Myers is just kind of a goofball. When I said that Austin Powers was tailored to his strengths, I didn’t mention that those strengths are mostly putting on silly outfits and talking in goofy voices. And he has the most irritating tendency to wink and grin at the camera while he’s cheesing through his broad performances. That didn’t become a derailing tendency until he put out the abysmal The Love Guru, but it starts to rear its head here. The concept of an impossibly ’60s secret agent coming to modern times isn’t a bad one, but when Myers keeps looking into the camera like a little child trying to make his mother watch him dive, it never lives up to its potential.
The lack of subtlety in the humor doesn’t just stop at Myers’ performance either. The production design here can be fun, because it’s a ridiculously exaggerated representation of ’60s aesthetics, but the comedic impact of how goofy stuff looked in the past gets undercut when the camera lingers over it like a pervert leering at a piece of exposed flesh. Plus, there are just a ton of fart jokes and penis jokes in this thing, and it all seems so desperate. Myers is obsessed with penises. Obsessed. The bottom of the barrel gets scraped here. Probably with a penis. Also, it’s kind of ironic how the film makes fun of how outdated the ’60s look, but watching it now just reveals how outdated the ’90s are. At one point Dr. Evil does the Macarena. Chew on that.
Maybe the most egregious sin Austin Powers commits is trying to get serious with the relationship between Myers and Elizabeth Hurley’s character, though. For 90% of its runtime it’s a comedy so silly and absurd that it plays like a filthy cartoon, and then somewhere in the third act we get long stretches of dialogue where the two start discussing the boundaries of “their relationship.” Seriously? Why the hell would we care about the trials and tribulations of a dumb, one-note joke’s romantic life? This thing should have been trying everything it could to keep up a rapidfire, joke-a-minute pace, because that was the only thing it had going for it. At least Norm MacDonald looks uncomfortable doing the romance scenes in Dirty Work, and we’re never asked to take them seriously.
Why is Dirty Work underpraised?
This movie should be considered a cult classic based on its cameos and supporting performances alone. You really can’t beat Jack Warden growling filthy lines, squeezing people’s testicles, and perving out while watching ladies do aerobics on the television. This thing gave us the legendary Chris Farley’s last performance before his death too, which included the classic bit of his raging about his nose getting bit off by a Saigon whore. It even affords Don Rickles the opportunity to go off on one of his insult jags. Has he got another forum to do so since? Either way, this is classic stuff. Not to mention the fact that Adam Sandler showing up for five seconds dressed as the devil and saying, “We eat the pig and then together we burn,” is probably the most effective use of him in a movie ever.
There are so many great quotes in this movie, quotes that I still use to this day. How can a film fan’s heart not be warmed by MacDonald responding to the opinion that grown men don’t get into fights with the quip, ”What, are you kidding? Did you ever see that movie Kickboxer? They’re all grown men!” This movie gave the great David Koechner one of his first film roles, and MacDonald’s deadpan response of, “Who’s that dude?” to one of his now patented misogynist rants just can’t be beat. Other classics include, “I’ve never seen so many dead whores in all my life,” and, ”No, no, I have to go and…lift weights.” I could go on all day.
Most obviously though, Dirty Work doesn’t get enough praise because Norm MacDonald is a comedic genius too special to succeed in a cut and paste industry, and is certainly much funnier than Mike Myers has ever been, colossal success or no. This movie doesn’t rely on the absurdism that started feeling dated coming into the aughts, instead its humor lies in the clever asides that started to take root once digital shooting allowed for looser, more improvisation-heavy shoots in later years. Also, Dirty Work is ludicrously offensive for much of its runtime, which is the sort of humor that never goes out of style. Sure, MacDonald might be a beat off and too difficult to work with, but his uniquely dry, trickster persona is one that could have given us so many more hilarious movies if we would have just given him the money to have the clout to get them made. At least it would have been more fun to watch him burn out than it was watching Myers fade away.
Evening the odds.
Okay, so probably it’s unfair to make fun of Austin Powers for looking dated without bringing up Dirty Work’s ludicrous, late ’90s pop-punk soundtrack. Who was in charge of picking out the music for this thing? It sounds like you’re watching a movie about 15-year-olds, and then you look at the screen and see Norm McDonald and Artie Lange looking all haggard. Jarring. Still though, if you want to talk unappealing music numbers, you have to bring up Myers making that in-character rock song with Susanna Hoffs and Matthew Sweet that played over Austin Powers’ end credits. Who foot the bill to make that thing? Talk about self-serving nonsense. If Norm MacDonald was ever given way too much money he would have been able to spend it on something way stupider. Or, at least he would have lost it on one of his gambling binges.