Grade: C-

It was once the case that actors who played multiple roles in movie comedies were actually talented. There was Alec Guinness, for example, in “King Hearts and Coronets,” and Peter Sellers in “The Mouse that Roared” and “Dr. Strangelove.” Now, sadly, we must make do with the likes of Mike Myers instead. One might argue that this precipitous slide in quality is yet another sign of the decline of western civilization; but remember that Jerry Lewis played seven parts in “The Family Jewels” as long ago as 1965, so shameless Myers-level multi-role mugging has been around for nearly half a century already. But it’s still awfully dispiriting.

The vehicle, of course, is the latest installment in the inexplicably popular “Austin Powers” franchise–a takeoff on the old super-spy genre which gets most of its supposed laughs from unbridled vulgarity and the dumbest kind of slapstick while assaulting the eye with a gaudy “psychedelic” setting from decades ago. The first picture was pretty poor, the second really atrocious. “Austin Powers in Goldmember” improves on the last effort; the title sequence, marked by some unexpected cameos that the audience will eat up, gets things off on a high note, and though it soon falls to earth the rest of the movie nonetheless has a few moments–the occasional amusing sight gag or bright line–when you might actually find yourself starting not to hate it. Unfortunately, at such times another attack of potty humor invariably intervenes to arouse a renewed sense of disgust. The movie, unhappily, manages always to return to its rubbishy roots. So “Goldmember” ends up a hit-and-miss affair that misses more often than not.

One shouldn’t expect a real plot in one of these flicks, of course, and in that respect it doesn’t disappoint. Basically “Goldmember” is merely a slapdash succession of sketches of extremely variable quality (some of them musical) tied loosely together by the fact that the same characters appear in them. There are Myers’ various previous personas–Powers, Dr. Evil and Fat Bastard–along with the newest member of his menagerie, the eponymous Goldmember, a weird Dutchman who has a passion for the glittering stuff and allies with Evil in some sort of a plot, involving a satellite, to cause the earth to be flooded. There’s also singer Beyonce Knowles as Foxxy Cleopatra, an Afro-coiffed babe from the seventies who becomes Austin’s partner, and his daddy Nigel (Michael Caine), also a superspy (and with equally bad teeth), who gets involved in the plot for some reason too. Evil’s cohorts are all back as well–one-eyed Number 2 (Robert Wagner), sad-sack son Scott (Seth Green), harridan secretary Frau Farbissina (Mindy Sterling) and midget clone Mini Me (Verne J. Troyer). Except for Wagner, whose unflappable deadpan shtick is the only respite from the general bedlam, everybody (and Myers in particular) indulges in a stream of loud, raucous physical farce laced abundantly with crassness. No one suffers overmuch from this but Caine, who at this stage in his career should really be above such stuff. It’s not as though he hasn’t taken humiliating roles before–he was among those stranded in “Jaws: The Revenge,” after all–but his turn here is particularly unfortunate in view of the memory of his secret agent Harry Palmer pictures, and its pathetic quality is only italicized when a shot from his early days is inserted into a flashback. The only other truly notable thing is that the new Goldmember role taken by Myers is easily the worst aspect of the picture. The character has some of the perverse weirdness of Dieter, the old SNL German that Myers was supposed to be bringing to the big screen until he dropped the idea, setting off a contract fracas in the process; but except for the obvious connection to the James Bond franchise the whole bit is remarkably unfunny, and Myers brings very little imagination or energy to it.

So any gold in this edition of the franchise is mostly of the fools’ variety, but “Austin Powers in Goldmember” is one of those critic-proof sequels that will doubtlessly entice large numbers of fans into the multiplexes whatever the reviews might advise. Its wrapup, incidentally, insures that if–as seems likely–a fourth installment is planned, it will have to take a somewhat different tack than the first three. That, at least, is a blessing.