Of all the genres of movies, comedies are the hardest to judge by their trailer alone. They rely on timing and context more than any other kind of film, and it’s hard to compress that down into two-and-a-half minutes. So trailers are made of all the broad, easy to digest bits of the movie, in the hope that the largest number of people show up on opening day. But what if you don’t like that kind of film? Trailers are often all we have to go on in order to judge whether we want to spend our hard-earned cash on a ticket, and that can lead to overlooking some movies because their promos don’t — or can’t — appeal to our comedic funnybone.

Such is the case with the two movies in this double bill. Austin Powers and Zoolander are both films I skipped in theatres, because they were marketed as loud, stupid comedies with about as much sophistication as a fast-food french fry. Indeed, even all these years after the films’ release, silly hijinks and toilet humour are what most people who haven’t seen these films will associate with them, and probably never intend to watch them.

But what if I told you that they are two of the smartest comedies of recent times, and absolutely must-watch cinema?

Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery

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Somewhere someone decided that now was the time to put all those childish, decadent ways of decades past behind us…

To anybody with even a vague memory of the 1960s and 70s, growing up in the sober, politically-correct 90s must have been a bit of a letdown. This was the strange time after the big hair and padded shoulder decadence of the 80s, but before the internet brought the world’s kinkiest subcultures to within googling distance of anyone with a modem. Cel-phones were around but ‘texting’ was nearly unknown, rap albums came with large signs telling us they contained naughty, naughty lyrics, and James Bond drove a BMW and had a female boss who called him a ‘sexist mysoginist dinosaur’. Somewhere someone decided that now was the time to put all those childish, decadent ways of decades past behind us, and embrace the mini-skirt business suit and the PlayStation as the template for the future.

Into the thick of it came Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, a film that quite literally injected a big, loud, colourful shot of 1960s cool into the drab 90s. Austin was a flamboyant, famous spy from the swinging sixties, cryogenically frozen in 1967 until the day his arch nemesis, Dr. Evil (also played by Myers), himself thawed out and returned thirty years later. Teamed up with the gorgeous Vanessa Kensington (Elizabeth Hurley) as his partner and guide to the 1990s, he had to thwart Dr. Evil’s plans to rule the world. Again.

It’s all classic spy movie stuff, except that Mike Myers’ spoof owes as much to the ebullient James Coburn Derek Flint movies (Our Man Flint and In Like Flint) as the James Bond films. In fact, it spoofs several 1960s movies that were themselves parodies of Bond in some way, such as Dean Martin’s ‘Matt Helm’ films, and the 1967 version of Casino Royale.

But beyond the fun takes on Blofeld and Odd Job, there are the more cerebral aspects of the film. Introspection is hardly a trait one associates with comedy, but Austin Powers makes room for it now and then, examining the man out of time with a great deal of sympathy. Austin is that uncle of yours with the crazy fashion sense and the embarrassing one-liners, the sexist sex symbol who seems ludicrous ten years later. “There’s nothing as pathetic as an aging hipster,” the more 90s-compatible Dr.Evil says to him, when Austin waxes nostalgic about Freedom and Love. It’s odd for a spoof to treat its characters realistically, if only for a moment, but that’s what makes this movie special.

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Released in 1997, Austin Powers was the return of Mike Myers to the big screen in a big way, four years after Wayne’s World 2. It went on be a modest hit at the box office but a cult classic nonetheless, gave birth to more than one cultural icon in the forms of Austin & Dr. Evil (and more with its sequels), and a slew of catchphrases that are popular even today (I myself use ‘sharks with frikkin lazers’ and ‘one MILLION dollars’ now and then).

I’ll be honest and say that the sequels, The Spy who Shagged Me, and Goldmember are exactly the kind of vapid, brain-melting comedies that the first isn’t (but you can probably tell that from their titles), and since then Mike Myers has gone on to give us the execrable Shrek films and, most recently, The Love Guru. The first Austin Powers, however, is still a high point, and deserves all its praise. It’s a spoof that not only lovingly sends up its chosen spy movie genre, but simultaneously makes fun of spoofs themselves, in the same way Airplane! did so well years before.

It’s definitely worth your time, and probably one MILLION dollars too.

Zoolander

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…don’t let the intellectually-challenged nature of its protagonist fool you…

On the surface, Ben Stiller’s Zoolander looks like a lighthearted jab at the world of vapid male models. This is true, but don’t let the intellectually-challenged nature of its protagonist fool you into thinking that the movie itself is stupid. Using an innocent fool as a means to say something smart and incisive about the world is a tried and tested storytelling device, and director & writer Stiller puts it to great use in the film.

The plot is set up right from the get-go: the newly elected Prime Minister of Malaysia has toughened child labour laws in his country, which is bad news for a shadowy, SPECTRE-like cartel of fashion industry magnates who rely on the cheap slaves to maximise their profits. They task uber-designer Mugatu (Will Ferrell) with assassinating the PM through the usual method: an unsuspecting, brainwashed male model. Enter Derek Zoolander (Ben Stiller), four time male model of the year, famous for his ‘Blue Steel’ look, working on a follow-up years in the making he calls ‘Magnum’. But all is not well for Derek. First, he loses the male model of the year award to rookie sensation Hansel (Owen Wilson) — he’s so hot right now! — is the subject of a scathing Time magazine article by reporter Matilda Jeffries (Christine Taylor), and his three roommates Rufus, Brint, and Meekus die tragically, the victims of a playful gasoline fight gone horribly wrong.

Derek announces his retirement and goes home to his estranged coal-miner family, throwing a spanner in the works of Mugatu’s plans to turn him into the assassin. With time running out, Mugatu coaxes Zoolander out of retirement by hiring him for his new collection, ‘Derelicte’, the unveiling of which will be attended by the Malaysian Prime Minister. The plot is just so zany it actually works.

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…more celebrity cameos than the main cast of most epic movies…

It helps, of course, that the film presents a fully-realised vision of the male fashion world. It’s completely bizarre, but lovingly crafted, with hotly-contested runway walk-off competitions to settle scores, ex-hand models who keep their mitts in hyperbaric chambers, and more celebrity cameos than the main cast of most epic movies (with David Bowie’s appearance being the highlight). It’s a surreal take on the industry and its idiosyncrasies, but it seems just that little bit based on the truth, which makes it even funnier. You can imagine designers throwing a hissy fit at their assistants for bringing them foamed lattes, and models having entirely ludicrous crutches such as the inability to turn left.

Most people I know have never seen Zoolander, or if they have heard of it have steered clear, just like I did. It probably didn’t help that it released soon after 9/11 in 2001. But the film has gone on to be remembered for what it is, a comedy that’s smarter than it looks. A quick internet search reveals pages full of people giving their takes on Derek’s signature ‘Blue Steel’ and ‘Magnum’ looks, and a sequel has long been rumoured. Whether it continues the high standard set by the original or falls victim to the same trap as the Austin Powers sequels remains to be seen, but we’ll always have the first.

Zoolander is that perfect double act: the comedy that will appeal to your brain as well as your funny bone. Along with Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, it makes a darn good double bill too.

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