It's a drag, baby! Austin 3 is all swung out.

By , Film critic of The Christian Science Monitor

It's a trilogy now. If you laughed through "Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery" in 1997, and howled through "Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me" in 1999, you may go mad with glee over "Austin Powers in Goldmember," the third installment of this massively popular series.

If this is your cup of English tea, that is. For some of us, Austin has worn out whatever welcome he ever had.

"Goldmember" wants to be a flashy, funny satire on the swinging '70s and the science-fiction spy stories – with Agent 007 and his ilk – that embodied the era's fashions and foibles.

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What's really on the filmmakers' minds, though, is how much box-office power they can tap into by blitzing moviegoers with an even larger dose of repetitive sex jokes and insipid scatological gags than before. I enjoy inspired silliness as much as anyone, but I found this a depressing, disheartening 98 minutes.

If you're new to the Powers scene, the basic setup is simple.

Austin is a superspy in the James Bond vein, living a glitzy hyper-'70s lifestyle while saving the world from Dr. Evil, his accurately named nemesis.

Other characters include Mini-Me, the dwarf-sized clone Dr. Evil keeps at his side, and – fresh to the franchise – a blaxploitation-type heroine called Foxxy Cleopatra, plus the villainous Goldmember himself.

The latest chapter's plot kicks in when Dr. Evil visits 1975 to recruit Goldmember for a wicked scheme. A subplot reveals that Austin has "daddy issues" with suave Nigel Powers, his estranged father.

Series creator Mike Myers plays the hero and three bad guys, backed up by Beyoncé Knowles, Robert Wagner, Seth Green, Michael York, and Michael Caine as Austin's pop. Jay Roach directed, as always.

To give the movie its due, it puts its budget on the screen – there are flashy colors, nifty outfits, and fantastic settings galore – and its energy is frenetic.

That's it for the good side. To explain why I found "Goldmember" so dismaying, it will help to put the movie in context.

"Goldmember" comes from a long line of film comedies that are both proudly infantile and somewhat naughty – qualities that easily coexist, as you know if you've watched little kids snicker over a joke or prank that breaks the taboos they're being taught.

Jerry Lewis's movies are good examples. So is England's long-lasting "Carry On" series.

Since they were made in a more culturally repressed era, those movies had to be brash in indirect, suggestive ways, conveying their slightly shocking gags through verbal and visual puns, ambiguities, and insinuations.

"Goldmember" comes after years of escalating vulgarity have thrown the need for caution – and cleverness – out of fashion.

Wordplay and sight gags are still in style, but their nature has drastically changed. Coarseness and crassness rule in the summer gross-out film, the more degrading and sadistic the better.

A deeper problem with "Goldmember" is its lack of connection to anything like real life.

Fantasy and escapism have honored places in entertainment, but can't even the most frivolous diversion have some awareness of the world we actually live in?

The relentlessly unrefined "Carry On" farces showed characters in jobs and families that moviegoers could recognize as humorous versions of their own. Lewis sometimes got preachy, but his efforts to "send a message" showed he was thinking about the society he satirized.

"Goldmember" is as eager to recognize reality as Austin is to settle down with a homey wife. Even the "daddy issue" angle is eventually shrugged off as just another smirky subplot.

There's a long history of art and culture, stretching back for millenniums, that attacks conventional notions of decency and decorum in order to explore them, test them, challenge them.

At their best, works like these ask audiences to consider new ways of thinking about the anxieties and uncertainties of their age, including the uneasiness over bodily functions that "Goldmember" obsessively exploits.

But while classic comedies in this vein try to open people's minds, "Goldmember" does the opposite. Its horizons are bounded by the cramped, dollar-driven world of mass-market entertainment that spawned it.

That's why almost all its jokes are tied to brand names, pop-culture trivia, parodies of movies that were self-parodies to begin with, and cameos by stars eager to show they can be as loud and lowbrow as the next celebrity.

This is what makes money nowadays, and I'm sure "Goldmember" will live up to its title at the ticket window. Irreverent movies aimed at the profitable youth market don't have to be stupid, though. "Beavis and Butt-Head Do America" was a smart, savvy frolic by comparison. So was "Election," and Myers's earlier "Wayne's World" pictures were lots of fun.

But this month a farce unworthy of the youngsters it's targeted at has become an "event movie" with enough high-pressure promotion to ensure long lines at multiplexes everywhere.

Could the evil Dr. Evil have something to do with this? Surely we haven't brought it on ourselves! Or ... have we?

• Rated PG-13; contains sexual material and bathroom humor.

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