Saturday, June 8, 2013

Mystery Men - 1999

"Mystery Men" - 1999
Dir. by Kinka Usher - 2 hrs. 1 min.

Theatrical Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

I remembered really liking "Mystery Men" when it came out.  Part of it was probably just the dearth of comic book adaptations, which was quickly rectified in the passing decade.  Part of it was my crush on Janeane Garofalo, part was the sheer improbability of a Hollywood film being made on a Bob Burden comic.  "Mystery Men" has a more than solid cast and is pretty funny, so what's the problem here?

First, recap.  Mr. Furious (Ben Stiller), Shoveler (William H. Macy) and the Blue Raja (Hank Azaria) are a super-hero team, sort of.  They're not any good at it, and end up trying to save senior citizens from a gang of thieves, but are quickly eclipsed when Captain Amazing (Greg Kinnear) shows up and routs the baddies.  Turns out Cap is so good at fighting crime that people, and therefore his sponsors, are losing interest.  To rekindle interest, Cap decides to get his old nemesis, Casanova Frankenstein (Geoffrey Rush), sprung from Arkham Asyl...  I mean, the looney bin, so that they can renew their rivalry and Cap can continue to rake in the sweet sponsorship moolah.  Casanova has learned a few new tricks in his time away, and that leaves Furious & company as the last heroes standing between him and tragedy.

So lets start with the good.  All of the actors, and I mean all of them, do a great job.  Stiller and Garofalo (playing "The Bowler," she has a super-powered bowling ball with her deceased father's head in it, which she talks back to) bicker like you want them to, Macy plays things straight, Azaria's strange and puts on a fake British accent for much of the film.  If I recall, this was also one of the first movies that Paul Reubens (playing The Spleen, a lisping, bezitted dork armed with super-powered farts) made after his legal run-in at a theater of a different kind, and he does a great job here, too.  Pretty much all of the good stuff in "Mystery Men" (and there is plenty of good comedy and acting here) is due to the cast going above and beyond.

I have two essential problems with "Mystery Men" at this point, nearly fifteen years after its release.  The first concerns the direction; director Kinka Usher (this is his one and only feature film, he's returned to directing TV ads since) is obsessed with jamming people's faces right into the camera.  And when faces aren't approaching the camera, maybe it's a car driving right up to the camera.  I feel like I've just spent two hours looking up actor's noses and staring at people through a door's peephole.  It's unbelievably repetitive (I was aware of this quickly, and completely sick of it half an hour in); it's the sort of approach that might work in thirty-second commercials, but is unsustainable over the course of two hours.  Also, it forces an awareness of the camera that distracts from the pure storytelling aspect of "Mystery Men."

I didn't mind the story (even though it's basically a mash-up of Grant Morrison and Dave McKean's "Arkham Asylum" graphic novel and "The Warriors", which offers up little of creator Bob Burden's surrealist appeal), but the approach to making this film is hard to grasp.  I'm not a purist; I don't believe for a second that a film has to match up to it's source material at all.  They're two separate entities, and I'm more than willing to give the creators of each room to make their art work in the format that they're using.  But if you look at the source material in this case, which were throw-away characters in Burden's main comic book creation, "Flaming Carrot," I can't begin to figure out how anyone saw a film budgeted at $68 million.  "Mystery Men" is a movie based on a forgotten drunken bar joke (literally - Burden had to be reminded of a joke he'd made at a bar about a nonsensical superhero one night and then promptly forgot about), and Burden's work is surreal and crude (I don't mean that as a slight - his work's appeal lies in it's humor and approach, and not in his draftsmanship).  So how does that translate into a film that cops it's neon/greased plastic look directly from "Batman & Robin," one of the most critically reviled comic-book adaptations ever committed to film?

The entire approach is misguided and overblown; "Mystery Men" should have been an ragged indie comedy to have any chance to succeed.  Instead, we get chestnuts like the entire team walking seven-across in slow-motion through fog.  Another problem; while "Mystery Men" is set in the future, no one has a cell phone.  1999 would have been on the cusp of when people really started carrying them around, but it seems implausible to have a future world where people don't have any electronic means of communication.  I'm willing to chalk that one up to bad timing, but there's a big dividing line in film on this issue, and "Mystery Men" is on the wrong side of that line.

"Mystery Men" isn't a bad movie, it's a mixed bag.  It's funny, it's jammed full of funny characters, the cast does everything they can with what they've got to work with.  But the visual approach is infuriating and frustrating at every turn, and burns up a lot of the good will I have towards the film.  I guess all I can say is that it's fun to watch if you're not paying attention, and you'd have to file it among the comic-book movies that were made before Hollywood got even a decent grasp of how to approach this sort of material.

2 / 5 - Streaming


  1. I just rewatched Mystery Men myself. Some of its charms held up, but you're right that the tonal inconsistency drags the movie down.

  2. I wanted to love it again. I'm ok with it, since Bob Burden got movie money for throwaway characters. But I wish it was a better movie.