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New Line Cinema has asked journalists not to reveal the slew of guest-star appearances that crop up in Austin Powers in Goldmember.

I say that's not cricket. Around the World in 80 Days and The List of Adrian Messenger - movies I'm sure Mike Myers and his alter ego Austin Powers have seen - advertised their big-name cameos and made spotting them a game akin to Saturday Night Live's old "Find the Popes in the Pizza" contest. To keep the critical peace, let's just say that the guest stars supply most of the fresh laughs in the movie.

On another celebrity issue: Scott Evil (Seth Green) starts losing his hair when he attempts to be as wicked as his dad, Dr. Evil (Myers, again). For a while Scott's reddish fringe makes him look like Ron Howard, whose Imagine Entertainment partner, Brian Grazer, tangled with Myers two years ago after Myers pulled out of a project centered on Myers' Sprockets character Dieter.

In movies, comics are more prone to self-centeredness and reliance on past success than other stars. With their ability to rouse laughter across borders and cultures, they fit Austin Powers' job description: they are the real international men of mystery.

As a sketch artist, Myers has an uncanny gift for nailing where the outre meets the ordinary, whether on Dieter's arty German TV show or in the basement studio of Wayne's World. And as an extemporaneous wit, Myers can be as funny as Mel Brooks: he even turned an episode of Inside the Actors Studio into a laugh riot.

Unfortunately, his movies are like Brooks' mediocre entries. Following his peak success with Young Frankenstein, Brooks kept doing movie parodies. Myers has turned the Austin Powers series, which started as a relatively focused, affectionate spoof of Swingin'-England spy films and TV shows, into a repository of every kind of film burlesque. Even Singin' in the Rain makes a brief appearance here.

The "Pirandellian" gags in these movies, based on the ones in Brooks' Blazing Saddles, have no more kick than seeing a puppeteer work the strings of marionettes. And the running jokes are truly diarrheic. Myers, like Brooks, keeps you smiling in anticipation, but doesn't fully deliver.

Austin Powers in Goldmember boasts three or four fairly hilarious sequences - and not all of them involve the guest stars. But everything from the series' pop-culture nostalgia to its single-entendre sex comedy has begun to feel like deja vu.

Most of its potty jokes are potted. Instead of a flying object resembling a phallus, followed by a parade of slang synonyms and dirty-minded euphemisms, we see a flying object resembling breasts, capped by a similar verbal cavalcade.

Instead of a show-stopping gag featuring a lab sample of fecal matter, we get one featuring a urinating statue. Instead of shadow play that makes innocent unpacking inside a tent seem like increasingly baroque forms of sodomy, there is shadow play inside a lab screen that makes Austin look (among other things) double-jointed in bizarrely suggestive ways.

A lot of this is low-down funny, but the good parts would be more uproarious if you didn't see them coming and if they didn't go on forever.

Once again, nefarious, clueless Dr. Evil has devised a bald-faced (and bald-headed) plot to bring the Earth to its knees. He's enlisted the help of Goldmember (Myers in stiff, unfunny makeup), a hedonistic metallurgist who loves gold as well as eating his own flaking skin. He has invented a tractor beam that can haul in a meteor capable of melting ice caps and flooding the planet.

Myers and his cowriter, Michael McCullers, have concocted a plot that has Austin time-hopping to New York's "Studio 69" in 1975 to save his legendary secret-agent father, Nigel Powers (Michael Caine), from the roller-boogying Goldmember.

The real reason for the time-travel is to enable Myers' Austin to make some semi-comical disco moves and dress up in SuperFly duds. In that attire, he strikes sparks with African-American super-heroine Foxxy Cleopatra (Beyonce Knowles, of Destiny's Child). Their first meeting is probably the film's high point - though New Line's no-naming-celebrities policy prohibits me from saying why.

Myers, McCullers and director Jay Roach betray a fatal inability to think beyond trademark pratfalls or catchphrases: The breaks into musical parody, including a version of "It's a Hard Knock Life" that's part Annie, part hip-hop and part Jailhouse Rock, are amusing only sporadically and mostly because of their novelty. (Why doesn't Myers collaborate with Steven Spielberg - who reportedly helped broker his truce with Imagine - on a real musical?)

Myers' characterization of Goldmember is an utter dud compared to his showcase roles of Austin and Dr. Evil, and neither the comely, game Knowles nor the ever-professional Caine is handed any memorable bits. Caine never loses his bonhomie - you're always glad when he shows up - but he deserves so much more. He was a master of self-reflecting humor when Myers was in short pants (or whatever young-uns wear in Canada), a Swingin'-England icon thanks to Alfie and super-cool spy Harry Palmer.

The movie's ragged unity is based on fathers and sons. Austin wants to please Nigel; Dr. Evil's tiny clone, Mini-Me (Verne Troyer), and his son, Scott, compete to please their daddy.

For the most part, Myers' characters in these movies - including that walking toilet joke, Fat Bastard - are too self-contained to make even jokey connections to their co-conspirators. Austin does have a psychedelic buoyancy and Dr. Evil an addle-pated sadistic goofiness that are original and engaging, but Myers doesn't build on their best stuff. That's where a real plot would help.

Actually, there is one inspired team-up here: Austin and Mini-Me, who goes over to the good guys' side. When the two square off in an apartment, the sequence raises hopes for the possibility of Myers playing Inspector Clouseau and bringing Verne Troyer along for the Burt Kwouk karate-chopping houseboy role.

The most sustained sequence involves Austin and Mini-Me sharing a costume - and Austin, illogically but hysterically, climbing on top of Mini-Me. For whole minutes, Troyer carries the movie on his shoulders, too.

Austin Powers in Goldmember

Starring Mike Myers, Michael Caine and Beyonce Knowles

Directed by Jay Roach

Released by New Line Cinema

Rate PG-13 (sexual innuendo, crude humor and language)

Time 95 minutes

Sun score **1/2

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