Movies of 1997 Bracket Game: Liar Liar vs Austin Powers
One of the challenges of writing for these bracket games is in finding connective tissue between the competing films. Sometimes there’s not much to go on and it’s necessary to scrap any pretense of commonality. But this time I was gifted with a spectacularly thin excuse for a theme based entirely on the location of the presented scenes, the power dynamics which are typically at play there, and how they are undermined.
Before we get into that though, let’s take a look at how the voting shook out in the previous contest. We had a very tight race this time around, but in the end Tarantino’s Jackie Brown outmaneuvered L.A. Confidential into our final four.
We’ve moved on from drama and crime flicks to comedies now, and it should be no surprise that at their core they are just as aggressive and power-driven as their more “serious” counterparts. They simply choose to approach the human condition with seltzer. Both of our scenes today feature the power dynamics of a board room. In Jim Carrey’s Liar Liar, he plays a fast rising attorney who is under a twenty-four hour curse which makes it impossible for him to lie. His immediate supervisor has gotten wind of his dilemma and intends to take advantage of the situation by introducing him to the head honcho who just happens to be in the office that day.
So why does this work comedically? Despite the rich set-up, once the scene gets going the actual material isn’t as rich as it could be. I can’t help but think they could have used a little help from Don Rickles to make each of Fletcher’s co-worker takedowns sharper. Still, the scene has reliably made me laugh each time I’ve run across it. Part of the reason is due to that great established context. A character who is used to being able to easily manipulate those around him is stripped of one of his principal tools and put n the presence of those who could destroy his career. We’ve watched him flounder with his inability to massage the truth already and now the stakes have gone way up for him. Naturally, this is the moment to pull him back from the brink and allow his curse to be used to his advantage instead of his detriment as Miranda intends, because even though we don’t think much of him, she’s clearly less likable.
Carrey’s performance is a big part of what makes us buy in. His usual over the top emoting is used to good effect, suggesting that he not only can’t lie, but that he can’t really restrain anything he’s feeling at all. This results in us getting to see his anxiety and sorrow in very externalized ways, and what is comedy but the revelation of truth amplified for effect. But his broad enthusiasm also rubs off on both us and his scene mates, so once the room-wide roast gets going their laughter becomes infectious. Even though the tension of the scene is relatively mild, it is established well by the editor’s or director’s choice to present a pair of mirrored shots with each side of the conference table looking in unison to the big boss he has just insulted for a cue. Once Mr Allen reacts positively we get a repeat of this paired shot revealing that they are now freely laughing along. It’s a real relief to Fletcher and now he’s riding his “curse” like a cowboy, much to Miranda’s dismay. The fact that the tables have turned on her so completely results in one of the payoff shots of the scene in her simple astonished reaction when he’s able to insult her openly and is supported by the whole room. This moment actually resonates stronger than his more extended flaunting of his advantage seconds later, which is actually the wind down of the scene before he passes out to bring it to a close.
Our next board room scene is equally broad and also mines laughs by undermining the supposed authority of the man at the head of the table, this time in an even more fictionalized context, that of Dr. Evil’s villainous lair. Interestingly, Mike Myers had initially hoped Jim Carrey would play the part of Dr. Evil instead of playing the part himself and Carrey had expressed interest, but was unable to schedule around his Liar Liar shoot. That didn’t stop Myers from getting a pretty big comedy star to play with him in this memorable scene though.
Will Ferrell was already a popular member of the Saturday Night Live cast in 1997 and audiences were pleased to see him show up in a small role here. Within seven years he would be one of the bigger comedy stars in the world. The scene is a spoof of a pretty much identical idea in the James Bond movie Thunderball, in which the primary baddie executes a crony by pressing a button which dumps him from his chair into a death trap. We’ve seen Dr. Evil use it in a portion of the film set earlier, which fulfills the more obvious reference to the Bond movie, but sets up this more deft callback of the device (why people keep sitting in these chairs is a mystery). It’s no mistake that director Jay Roach makes use of the standard approach of not showing the villain’s face in the first forty seconds of the sequence, emphasizing the dramatic effect of the genre before gradually eroding Dr Evil’s power over the room through Mustafa’s increasingly annoying refusal to die quietly. The absurdity of Dr Evil treating the meeting as if it were any other “getting to know you” company function while one of their number wails in pain, having not quite been dispatched with the ruthlessness and finality he had hoped serves to highlight his ineffectuality and helps to support the continuing tone of the comedy we’re getting. It still makes me laugh.
So what do you think? Which of our broadly comic movies should continue to represent 1997 as we move into our final four? Neither star has been at full power for a while now, but both had a firm grip on us at the time. Vote here and then join the conversation in the comments section!