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The Baffling Return of Mike Myers

One of the biggest comedy stars of the past 30 years is back after a long hiatus—in one of the worst movies of the year, on talk shows, and, as always, hiding behind his menagerie of characters. But where does he fit in now?

A collage of Mike Myers characters Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Almost exactly four years ago, an interview with Mike Myers was published. It was conducted by GQ’s Chris Heath to promote Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon, the sweet and compelling documentary about the wise guru to the stars that Myers directed as an homage to his longtime manager. The interview is a fascinating document of the comic writer and performer’s searching mind. He is curious, sincere, and largely egoless, contented with hobbies and the unlikely, nonpublic things occupying his time. He talks about raising his family, the burden of creation, and playing floor hockey with his pals in New York City. Given his disposition and the cadence of his responses, he doesn’t quite seem normal—that would be unreasonable for a person who’s experienced Myers’s brand of stardom—but he does seem kind and at peace. At the time, Myers had not been seen on screen in nearly five years, not since burrowing under makeup and a wig to portray a British general in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. And he hadn’t toplined a movie since the disastrous reception of 2008’s The Love Guru. Heath’s conversation is positioned as Myers’s comeback, but what followed Supermensch for the erstwhile Wayne Campbell was … nothing.

Publicly, Myers more or less vanished, save for the occasional appearance in a documentary paying tribute to an old friend or unannounced appearance at his old stomping ground, Saturday Night Live. Myers could be elusive in the past. He talked with Heath about being inspired by Steven Soderbergh’s dictum about “making things” and taking his time to do so. (“I never have a five-year plan for anything.”) But even in the five-year interregnum between 2003’s The Cat in the Hat (remember that?) and The Love Guru, Myers maintained a kind of invisible ubiquity, pushing the Shrek franchise into sequels and threequels and appearing in perhaps the seminal viral clip of the pre-Twitter era.

The look on Myers’s face after Kanye West’s notorious statement—“George Bush doesn’t care about black people”—became nearly as resonant as West’s defiant act during a 2005 Hurricane Katrina relief telethon. It was a snapshot of white, well-meaning awkwardness in the face of black pain. It also became a meme. And though he’s worked to lampoon his response, that moment did a fascinating thing to Myers in the public consciousness. It removed the coyness of the character-based performer’s shtick—the man best known for growling, Do I make you horny, baby?!—and making him seem vulnerable to the real world. It’s fair to say his career has not been the same since he crossed paths with Kanye West that night.

Last year Myers crept back onto televisions in heavy prosthetics and ocean-blue contact lenses to portray Tommy Maitland, the fictionalized British host of the revived Gong Show on ABC. Myers stayed in character through the series’ first season (it was recently renewed for a second) and publicly acknowledged he was playing the role only in January. That kick-started a low-hum assault. Mike Myers is back now, for the first time, really, since his Austin Powers heyday. Sort of. Because I’m not sure many people have noticed. He’s attempting a kind of public comeback in stealth mode.

Mike Myers in ‘Terminal’
Terminal (2018)
RLJE Films

Myers has a pivotal role in the neo-noir Terminal starring Margot Robbie, which sounds like a movie you should have heard of but probably haven’t. Filmed in 2016 in Budapest and produced by Robbie, first-time director Vaughn Stein’s beautifully composed and brain-dead thriller is one of the limpest movie star vehicles I’ve seen in years. It’s been retrofitted as a kind of post-#MeToo commentary on toxic masculinity, a generous reading. It’s hard to tell who’s at fault—Robbie vamps as a sociopathic killer, the cinematography of a darkened Hungarian city has the neon glow and slick dampness of a rainy Manchester evening, and Myers is where he’s most comfortable: under makeup, affecting absurd accents, and having a grand time in a movie with a stupid premise. Terminal is woeful, and worse, vanishing. Released by Robert Johnson’s RLJ Entertainment, a company known mostly for its home video distribution and OTT networks, the movie is available on VOD and iTunes, but is playing in only a handful of theaters around the country. It hasn’t even registered among box office tracking services and is rendering some of the most operatic bad reviews I’ve read in some time. “Yes, you read that correctly: zero stars,” the famously generous Peter Travers howled.

No matter the quality of the film, Myers is amiably promoting it. In April he showed up on Jimmy Kimmel Live! as Dr. Jacob Bornstein, President Donald Trump’s disloyal medical prevaricator. One night later he appeared on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, telling tales of getting soused with Robbie on the set of Terminal. And earlier this month, he returned to Fallon with a shopworn Dr. Evil routine about the monsters in Trump’s cabinet. Later this year he’ll appear not so coincidentally in Bohemian Rhapsody, the Freddie Mercury–Queen biopic that happens to share a name with Myers’s other most ubiquitous cultural moment, from Wayne’s World.

No matter how pervasive he’s felt in the culture, the funny thing about Myers appearing in two movies this year is just how rare it is: It happened in 2003, with The Cat in the Hat and a small role in the forgotten Gwyneth Paltrow stewardess comedy View From the Top. Before that, it was 25 years ago, when a 30-year-old Myers appeared in both the commercially disappointing but cultish Wayne’s World 2 and the absolutely perfect So I Married an Axe Murderer (nothing makes me laugh harder than “HEAD! MOVE!”). He did so while still a cast member on SNL. At the time, Myers was tabbed as a Peter Sellers–ish chameleon, building worlds around characters, and it genuinely seemed like he might be as gifted as his idol. He’s arguably had more success and reached more people, but built a smaller legacy.

In fact, Myers hasn’t made very many movies at all. If you set aside his voice work in the Shrek films, he’s acted in only 15 movies across nearly three decades. He’s not a consummate job-taker, like Will Ferrell or the late Robin Williams. He works when he wants to, on the projects he cares about, like 2016’s sweet, oddball book Canada, a visual collection that captures the history and charm of Myers’s home country. Here he is attempting to sell it with a hashtag in a decidedly nonviral video that feels like the half-baked machinations of an understaffed book publisher’s marketing team.

Myers exists as one part of a triumvirate of white-guy comedy stars of the ’90s. If Adam Sandler is the id, all thrashing nerve and adolescent impulse, and Jim Carrey is the ego, self-styled and roiling with wild self-belief, Myers is certainly the superego, kitschy and ironic, always reflecting on what came before him. Austin Powers is a parody of swinging ’60s London and James Bond. Dieter is a conversation at an Artforum party gone terribly awry. Wayne and Garth are a riff on homespun, low-stakes public access fame. (They’ve aged gracefully in a time of Logan and Jake Paul.) Even Shrek is a full-blown deconstruction of fairy tales. This led to a series of movies that became part and parcel of the industry, mini-expanded universes rippling with characters that could work only in Myers’s terrarium—Donkey, Fat Bastard, Noah Vanderhoff. And they imprinted. When the actor Verne Troyer, best known as Mini-Me, died this month, the world turned to Myers for comment. When his movies hit, they became cultural touchstones. When they failed, they became laughingstocks. There was no in-between. It’s an exhausting consequence of extraordinary success.

So Myers, who turns 55 this month, retreated for much of the last 10 years, to raise his children and paint Colonel Sanders. His return feels perfunctory, not quite the choice of an artist who hasn’t much cared for chasing waves. Though I suspect it could result in something special. Maybe a return to the Sellersesque work he hinted at 54, the troubled 1998 drama that has grown into a film beloved by some. The one thing we still haven’t seen from him in his work is the very thing he may be remembered for historically: that thunderstruck look on his face during the Katrina telethon in 2005. It was a genuine, artifice-free showcase, frozen in time. The real Mike Myers there for all to see.