In the “Class of …” series, Nick Rogers takes a monthly look back at films celebrating either their 20th or 30th anniversary of initial release this year — six from 1993 and six from 1983. The rules: No Oscar nominees and no films among either year’s top-10 grossers.
Mike Myers rarely shows his face in film anymore. His actual face, that is, free of triple-chin makeup, feline fur, protruding proboscises or defining traits like lazy eyes or pattern baldness. If Myers were being honest, he’d probably say the reason is the abject failure of 1993’s So I Married an Axe Murderer.
It’s the only comedy in which the Saturday Night Live legend played a lead role as, more or less, an everyday guy — albeit a quasi-frumpy beat poet named Charlie with an early-’90s Carrie Fisher haircut. It’s also Myers’ biggest flop, earning $11 million, or about 1/10th of the gross of Wayne’s World, his film debut in 1992.
Axe saved some face with a decent home-video showing. But conveying just how little interest awaited its initial arrival requires insult-to-injury specifics. Its opening was topped by weekend No. 2 of Another Stakeout. Yes, more people chose a six-years-on sequel with Rosie O’Donnell over Myers in an original romantic comedy.
Why did it flop? Take your pick. A glut of seven comedies crowded the summer marketplace. Its title feels like an albatross hung around its neck as if by way of a lost bet, and it spoils all but 15 minutes of the narrative. Director Thomas Schlamme diplomatically confirmed the well-reported rumors of Myers’ on-set egotism. And a smugly self-congratulatory trailer, in which Myers flaunted his newfound film fame, probably endeared no one.
Regardless, Myers scrambled back to SNL for two more years. Save for Wayne’s World 2, already in production when Axe opened, Myers avoided films altogether for four years. But he hit on a moneymaking formula in Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery that he’s followed to the letter ever since: Entomb your face in latex and leave it there, or hide it behind a computer-animated ogre.
Seeds of Myers’ approach to the Austin Powers franchise and his Shrek voice are sown in Axe, as he camouflages himself to play curmudgeonly Stuart McKenzie, Charlie’s dad.
Stuart is Archie Bunker with a brogue — a garrulous, googly-eyed misanthrope who pantslessly parades around his living room like a king and tosses darts at a picture of Queen Elizabeth II from his bathroom throne. He loves the Bay City Rollers, hates Colonel Sanders and berates his youngest (whom he nicknames “Head”) for having an oversized cranium, even though Stuart’s own DNA gave him that burden.
He’s a wily character who never wears out his welcome, and his lines are nearly the only ones anybody quotes from Axe. To wit, a bevy of bons mots embedded below, many of which visibly cause co-star Anthony LaPaglia (as Charlie’s cop friend, Tony) to go up at nearly every turn.
Those who recall anything about Axe fondly chuckle about Stuart. But they’re remiss in forgetting the rest of this gem, amorphous only on the surface. Like any good concept comedy, it explodes a simple idea (commitment anxiety) into an outrageously exaggerated scenario (serial murder).
It’s also stuffed with the best kind of cameos — two-minute drills of impeccable characterization from stand-up pros, sketch-comedy gurus and legendary actors.
As an Alcatraz guide nicknamed “Vicky,” the late Phil Hartman has clear contempt for herding tourists but derives sadistic pleasure from sharing the former prison’s twisted inside stories. Meanwhile, Michael Richards turns up to deliver what, looking back now, seems an oddly prescient defense of an insensitive comment.
Steven Wright’s narcoleptic pilot wryly observes he’s had more practice flying with the artificial horizon, “which is better than the actual horizon,” and Charles Grodin’s well-informed citizen refuses to let Tony push him around.
The best cameo, though, comes from Alan Arkin as Tony’s captain. Tony wants him to exhibit the ball-busting bluster of film and TV cops. In actuality, he has the countenance of an actuary, but he aims to please. Watch the ever-so-slight tells in Arkin’s second scene, indicative of a boss who wants engaged, fulfilled employees.
Such character details extend to the leads, too. At its heart, Axe is a sweet, funny romance between people trapped in patterns and freed by a positive paradigm shift. However, had TriStar shot the film it intended, Stuart McKenzie and the amusing cameos would’ve been the only things worth remembering.
Originally, Sharon Stone was to star opposite Myers as Harriet, the beautiful butcher who captures Charlie’s heart but may also have left a trail of murdered ex-husbands in her wake. Stone had her own breakout hit from 1992 in Basic Instinct, and Axe would’ve crumpled under the weight of her stereotypical sexual-succubus baggage.
With Stone, Axe could only have been 90 minutes of nudging elbows, with no mystery whatsoever, and Myers never would have stood a chance in her predatory presence. Thankfully, the studio sensibly told Stone to step when she insisted on also playing Harriet’s sister, Rose, which certainly would have ruined its twist.
(Jealous of the men who took her sibling from her, Rose is the one who’s been murdering them all. Played by a pre-Pulp Fiction Amanda Plummer, Rose recites a creepy, ritualistic incantation of her murder plans in a clipped, Jack Palance-ish cadence.)
END SPOILER ALERT
While Stone’s replacement, Nancy Travis, lacked megawatt star power, she gave the movie the warm luminosity it needed. Her laugh, smile and emotional hesitancy all feel authentic, as does her occasional lapse into macabre thoughts that skitter through all our minds or bits of edgily uncertain conversation. What could be menace could just as easily be regret or what comes to be a perfectly understandable fear that Charlie will bail on her. It’s impossible to imagine Stone mulling “what’s brutal to one person” without anything but icy reserve or conveying such everyday, friendly friskiness in Charlie and Harriet’s bed.
Tonally, Travis is a perfect yin to Myers’ yahoo yang as Charlie, whose creative streak seems exclusively fueled by a blend of kvetching, insecurity and failure. Charlie’s never dated a woman he couldn’t find manufacture a reason to ditch, and you get the sense he’s channeled every single break-up into an artificially affected poem.
Inasmuch as Axe allows, Myers modulates his mania just enough to suggest Charlie concocts these fanciful flights of free verse to avoid confronting his truly terrifying phobia of intimacy. There’s a little dip in his voice early on when he thinks Harriet will remember him solely as the guy who orders haggis. And after Charlie temporarily breaks it off with Harriet and transcribes her into a poem for the public, he freezes. He can’t simply extract this name from his life, plop it into pentameter for a coffeehouse crowd and call it over.
Playing up a cheeky jester persona to hide an intense fear of failure? Sort of sounds like Myers himself. The Axe-to-Austin gap was just Myers’ first cinematic hibernation. Currently, he’s in the middle of an equally long hiatus (at least as live-action lead roles are concerned) after the tanking of 2008’s The Love Guru. He’s shown he’s clearly a creative talent, but one who also needs long vision quests to deal with defeat.
At least until Guru, Myers had done well by himself hiding behind Hollywood makeup. Whenever he decides to come back, perhaps, as in Axe, he’ll give us another entertaining glimpse at his true face.