Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Austin Powers's smarter older brother

It only took 40 years, but finally there is a truly great parody of James Bond, and surprisingly it's from the French, many of whom think Jerry Lewis is funny. OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies (2006) is an amalgam of wit, buffoonery, satire, slapstick, social comment and silliness that would probably be impossible for an American filmmaker outside of perhaps Christopher Guest.

Whereas Austin Powers reverts to poo-poo jokes, Clouseau to pratfalls by stuntmen, Maxwell Smart to Yiddish verbal schtick, the Naked Gun to meta- joking, this parody of what was originally a serious spy series predating James Bond is willing to take on colonialism, racism, sexism and general white male narcissism in a way that is genuinely funny. The clip shown above is a fairly good example, and demonstrates the subtlety of Jean Dujardin's playing. It helps that the overall silhouette resembles that of the Neanderthal Sean Connery version of Bond. (The tilt of Dujardin's eyebrow as he says "Don't feel like it...It was the cow joke" in the clip above cracks me up each time.)

This is an idiot who thinks Islam has to be stupid to ban alcohol, who beats up a muezzin who wakes him up in the morning and likes to flick the lights off and on in the henhouse just to hear them start and stop cackling. More than that, one has to appreciate the precision of the parody--the sets, costumes, lighting, style of camera movement and editing all hark back precisely to the early 1960's, without self-reference or vaudeville self-mockery. Even the opening titles sequence can elicit a chuckle of recognition from anyone familiar with light thrillers of the era (not only the Bonds, but Charade and that ilk).

Most laugh-out-loud comedies have a streak of stupid. But for OSS 117: Cairo, the stupid belongs to the character and the society from which he has emerged, not to the film itself, which is very smart indeed. Put this one in your queue now.

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