The last Austin Powers comedy, "The Spy Who Shagged Me," signaled that the series was succumbing to the same failings as the James Bond pictures it set out to spoof. Formulaic and unimaginative, the movie also betrayed such a reliance on supporting characters that its purported hero appeared in danger of becoming a guest star in his own franchise.
"Austin Powers in Goldmember" doesn't rectify the latter dilemma, but it's slightly less prone to inspire déjà vu. While creative kingpin Mike Myers again puts his faith in the tried and true, he breaks just enough new moves to avoid conviction on the charge of giving the people what they've already paid for.
The era-hopping plot is the barest excuse possible for Myers' slapstick set pieces. Powers stumbles into action when his arch nemesis, Dr. Evil, forms an alliance with a supervillain plucked from the 1970s, a Speedo-wearing piece of Eurotrash named Goldmember (the latest addition to Myers' acting repertoire, which already includes Powers, Dr. Evil and Scottish behemoth Fat Bastard). Enlisting the aid of sassy superagent Foxxy Cleopatra (Beyoncé Knowles of Destiny's Child), Powers sets out to stop the baddies' nefarious plan of crashing a meteor into the Earth with the aid of a tractor beam (pronounced with the same implied quotation marks as its predecessor in the series, the "laser"). At the same time, our hero must save the life and win the respect of his absentee father, senior man of mystery Nigel Powers (Michael Caine).
Underneath its vaudeville put-ons, this is really a story of fathers and sons. (Take that, "Road to Perdition!") While the Powers family pratfalls toward mutual understanding, Dr. Evil renews his bond with his offspring, the heretofore denigrated Scott Evil (Seth Green). Their rapprochement, of course, threatens the favorite-son status of Dr. Evil's diminutive clone, Mini-Me (Verne Troyer). The spoofing of modern-psych papa issues reaches its apotheosis in Powers' performance of "Daddy Wasn't There," a hilarious mope-rock number co-written by Myers and Matthew Sweet.
Caine, who did some spying of his own in the Harry Palmer films of the 1960s, shows up early to prod our nostalgia, then vanishes from the film for almost the entire second act. Good call: His more lived-in swingerhood consistently upstages Myers'. Knowles is more adept than expected at channeling the spirit of Pam Grier, but the scenes devoted to the underwhelming Goldmember are time largely wasted: Myers' people had to conduct intense negotiations with the Bond producers before proceeding with their Goldfinger knock-off, but they do so little with the character that you wonder if the legal fees were worth it.
Pacing is a problem. The film's bravura opening sequence -- whose contents I am sworn to keep top secret, baby -- contains some of the best laughs of the cinematic year so far, and sets a standard of cleverness that remains unmet through the film's numerous, interminable interludes of bathroom humor. (This stuff makes Benny Hill look like Marcel Proust.) Yet every time the game seems lost, Myers and director Jay Roach get another of their intermittent brainstorms -- like having Dr. Evil and Mini-Me don do-rags to perform a jailhouse rendition of Jay-Z's "Hard Knock Life." Priceless bits like those deflect our temptation to write "Goldmember" off as mere base metal.