The French have it easy. Their secret agent-era vintage thrillers and corresponding spy parodies are collected under a single, post-modernly collapsed franchise. OSS 117, the cryptic code name for agent Hubert Bonisseur de La Bath, was once a slick, if appropriately artificial, francophonic Bond clone, but the revisionist revival Cairo, Nest of Spies, and its sequel Lost in Rio, magnify the character’s dustily patriarchal smugness for post-feminist guffaws. Unfortunately, we’ve been “liberated” from Bond chauvinism before; our era is just as post-Austin Powers as it is post-feminist, though the masculine satire of that trilogy floundered so persistently it made the targeted genre seem elusively, if dryly, comedic. But where the Austin Powers brand splintered predictably off into high concept, potty-sketch echolalia, OSS 117 director Michel Hazanavicius, and his condescendingly cuddly star Jean Dujardin, prefer to teeter on the precipice of homage. And, undeniably, Lost in Rio emulates its swinging-’60s targets with far more technical and spiritual fidelity than Mike Myers’s ham-fisted brood (an orgy scene in the middle of the film features an inspired multiple-split screen montage that divides the flat sex gags being performed into kaleidoscopic bubbles). The bulk of the humor, however, unwisely and unrelentingly dotes on 117’s stale sexism and anticipates his third act “feminine” quasi-epiphany; some of the attempted laughs aren’t even jokes, per se, but deadpan yonic fear (“Tell me when you have to carry something heavy,” he snorts at a female spy imperiously).
Far more culturally fascinating—but still only intermittently chuckle-worthy—is the film’s unnerving racial content, an angular outcropping of its discomfiting plot: The goal of OSS 117’s peril-pocked mission is to track down a Nazi ex-pat in Brazil and retrieve a damning list of Hitler-sympathetic French. While the solemn friction caused by the insinuations of such a task is enough of a laughter-stifling faux pas, the film refuses to halt there, offering up for our educated, occidental consumption an Asian hit man with a serious speech impediment, an unsavory American accomplice who intersperses ejaculations of brotherly profane put-downs with bouts of maniacal laughter and—truly best of all—subtle ruminations on the latent homophobia of Judaism: “It’s a religion that forbids sausages!” Much like Austin Powers, Lost in Rio wins giggles only when rubbing its spy milieu up against sheer randomness, but the sight of Dujardin’s self-absorbed mug carving up a rubber crocodile for survivalist sustenance can only do so much.