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DIRECTED BY: Kinka Usher
PLOT: Captain Amazing has been captured by the villainous Casanova Frankenstein, and Champion City is in danger. Do the Shoveler, Mr Furious, and Blue Raja have what it takes to save the day? The answer: not quite.
COMMENTS: It isn’t that strange that a star-studded action comedy would be directed by someone with a career in commercials—commercials and music videos (essentially commercials for music) often act as a springboard into “real” cinema. What is a bit strange is that Kinka Usher, the director of this muddled cult classic, remarked, “I’m going back to commercials when this is done. I’ve had enough. I’d much rather do my cool little one-minute shorts than deal with all this nonsense.” This lack of passion makes Mystery Men incredibly uneven. But Usher brings with him considerable visual flair, so at least all this unevenness is interesting to look at and constantly in motion. Even as the many saggy sections sag, the viewer can take comfort in the fact that the storyteller will move on with due haste.
The action starts immediately… right after soaring pan over the retro-futuristic “Champion City”, accompanied by a Danny Elfman-esque score, established a “superhero” vibe. The Red Eyes, a low-rent gang of larcenous thugs, crash a senior citizens’ ball, robbing the guests of watches, diamonds, “wigs and toupés”, and even false teeth. Enter our heroes: the Shoveler (William H. Macy), Mr Furious (Ben Stiller, who was in every other movie released in those days), and Blue Raja (Hank Azaria). After a display of middling skills, they fail just in time for Captain Amazing (Greg Kinnear) to save the day.
The script devotes more detail to Mystery Men‘s backdrop than to the characters themselves, and while this provides a grandeur to the superhero fun-poking, it also leaves the characters woefully underdeveloped. (It’s almost as if an entire comic book series doesn’t translate well into a single feature film.) The huge cityscapes, which hint at a world-culture smorgasbord, alternate with set pieces that play like sketch comedy bits strung together: the sub-heroes quibble in the diner, the sub-heroes host a recruitment barbecue, and so forth. Macy, Stiller, Azaria, et al. each seem to simultaneously hog the spotlight while also being spread too thinly.
This isn’t even a close call for our list, but the peripherals made it worth a look. The eccentric performances from Greg Kinnear, Geoffrey Rush, and Tom Waits all sync nicely with the tone that should have dominated. “Work-a-day super heroes”, though a cute premise, results in work-a-day personalities, and what Champion City (and Mystery Men) needs is a heavy dose of straight-faced absurdity. Kinnear and Rush play off each-other marvelously, and their scenes are a hoot. Waits needs only to be onscreen to give you a dose of strange.
Though failing at being weird is forgivable, failing as a comedy is less so. The biggest joke comes early, and works only because of meta-humor. Ricky Jay, as Captain Amazing’s agent, chides his client after the disappointing Red Eye bust, “Look, I’m a publicist—not a magician.” Some more self-awareness (and a little less Smash Mouth) could have saved Mystery Men from the “cult classic” film heap.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Mystery Men has moments of brilliance waving their arms to attract attention in a sea of dreck. It’s a long, shapeless, undisciplined mess, and every once in awhile it generates a big laugh.” -Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times / Rogerebert.com (contemporaneous)
(This movie was nominated for review by Chad, who called it “one of the most bizarre movies I’ve ever seen.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)