Comedy is hard. Knowing this, Hollywood has a bad habit of stocking its comedies with professional comedians. Who better, so the thinking goes, to help bring in the funny? But comedians are not necessarily actors. As such, they fall into an unfortunate habit of playing themselves. That’s the paradox of most comedies, and its a paradox Mystery Men cannot avoid. Its greatest strengths are also the very things that destroy its universe. Its great cast flits about like lost children, playing the Greek Chorus of their own damn story. Based on one of the great indie comics of the 90s, it extracted a perfectly good premise from a source it had no earthly idea how to properly handle. Having gained a cult following in the days since it spectacularly bombed at the box office only means it’s attracted my not-so-tender attentions. If I were Godzilla, cult superhero movies would by my nuclear power stations. So let’s strap on the latex monster costumes and get to stomping this Tokyo, shall we?
I’ll say this though – one unqualified rave: Mystery Men‘s has great art direction. The retro-futurist, art deco megalopolis of Champion City is a better looking Gotham than either of Joel Schumacher’s neon-drenched nightmare landscapes. Like a Gotham of the 1960s, Champion City sleeps secure in the knowledge it’s defended by Captain Amazing (Greg Kinnear). But years spent sending supervillains to prison has turned “CA” – as his publicist calls him – into a corporate whore, his uniform slathered with product decals. (We know where Rise of the Silver Surfer stole that idea from now, don’t we?)
Thanks to his high exposure (Captain Amazing toothpaste commercials, billboards, and statues litter Champion City and the first half of this film, speaking to the hero’s complete cultural penetration), much like Superman and Captain America before him, Amazing’s inspired a healthy share of imitators. Mystery Men follows three such DIY superheros: the Blue Raja, Master of Silverware (Hank Azaria); the Shoveler (William H. Macy), who shovels real nice; and Mr. Furious (Ben Stiller), who’s such a tragically inept poser he can’t even look badass in Wesley Snipes’ outfit from Blade.
The cops dismiss Our three Heroes as “wannabes,” and their inept performance in the opening sequence lends a lot of weight to this view. Yet, like all blue collar workers, they’ve got much better professional ethics than their white collar counterpart at the top of the socioeconomic heap. After Pepsi drops Captain Amazing from an endorsement deal, he (in his civilian identity) arranges for one of an old arch nemesis to make parole. Since said nemesis is named Casanova Frankenstein and is played by Geoffrey Rush we can see the Bad Idea implicit in Captain Amazing’s plan. Only Amazing’s titanic arrogance prevents him from seeing the rest of this movie coming.
In short order, Frankenstein kidnaps Amazing, leaving our Three Wannabes to rescue Champion City’s finest. It’s a startlingly profound allegory of historical U.S. foreign policy…that decays into a Seven Samauri rip-off once Our Terrible Trio decides to run a membership drive in the Shoveler’s back yard (because he’s the one with the pool…and more people will show up if you have a pool).
Back up a sec. How come Our Heroes are the only ones who can stop Casanova Frankenstein? Supposedly, they’re the only ones who know about Captain Amazing’s kidnapping…so where did the Captain’s publicist go? China? Metropolis? Surely Champion City’s cops might’ve appreciated a heads-up about their meal ticket’s capture at the hands of a known madman, parole or no parole. Hell, whenever Superman’s incapacitated the entire SCU turns out after one phone call from Lois Lane. I guess Captain Amazing never bothered wooing a take-no-shit journalist. More fool him. Might’ve saved us all the rest of this film.
Anyway…back in the main plot, I’m reminded why I’ve hated everything Ben Stiller’s ever done (with one exception). His oddball characters are irritating and his normal characters are only interesting when they’re in extreme amounts of pain for sustained lengths of time. Mr. Furious doesn’t have the luxury of catching his balls in his zipper. Instead, over the course of the film, he pushes himself to margins of his blossoming superteam by being a condescending dick. That’s only as it should be considering Mr. Furious is an obvious parody of the bike-riding, perpetually-angry antiheroes of comic book’s Iron Age (the same age that gave us Wolverine). His disdain for the last two-thirds of this film, coupled with his rising anger over how silly and stupid those two-thirds are, nicely mirrors my own. And you know you’re watching a bad movie when you find yourself identifying with Ben Stiller’s character. Or, at the very least, I certainly do.
In short order, The Shoveler, Furious, and Blue Raj recruit the Invisible Boy (Kel Mitchell), who can only turn invisible when no one’s watching…Spleen (Paul Reubens!), a fart joke on legs…and the Bowler (Janeane Garofalo). Mitchel you know, if you know him at all, from that stupid movie Good Burger. Reubens and Garofalo need no introductions. But thanks to them, the amount of wasted talent in this film is rushes right past “staggering” and speeds on toward “Brobdingnagian” without so much as a jaunty wave.
It takes a special kind of talent to make a film this dull from raw material this fine. It’s just inexcusable. Especially when you’ve got Pee Wee Herman, an Oscar nominee, the Apotheosis of Daria, half the cast of the Simpsons, and Ben fucking Stiller in front of your camera. I should be crapping my pants with uncontrollable yucks throughout the whole film. Why aren’t I?
Because Mystery Men doesn’t know what to be. Is it a satire of superhero stories or an actual superhero story? Is it a parody of superhero stories or a parody of superhero parodies? Is it a realist movie based on a surrealist book? Or a surrealist movie based on some tequila-fueled spitball sessions at someone’s back yard barbecue? Many a pack of stoned idiots have declared, “Hey, you know what’d be cool? If we just filmed these conversation we all have we we get together.” Thankfully, most sober up before they actually get around to it.
Either our cast didn’t or they sobered up to find they’d all signed contracts while they were out of it. Much of the dialogue comes straight from their ad-libbing heads, which works about as well as it usually does. I’m glad to credit the cast with all of Mystery Men‘s best lines, but they’re all throwaway bullshit one-liners that rarely (if ever) move the story. When Our Heroes sit around bickering over plot points they sound like sixth graders bickering over fantasy sports teams. “I don’t know, you tell me.” “I don’t know, you tell me.” Garofalo herself offers the best critique of the film’s humor: “You try to say pithy things but your wit is a hindrance. And so, therefore, nothing is provocative. It’s just mixed metaphors.”
And you remember that whole “plot” thing? With Captain Amazing being kidnapped by his old arch rival? The kidnapping he helped arrange by being a corrupt toad, heroing for fame and the money instead of for The People? Well, the film mostly forgets about him for a good thirty minutes because, before they do anything actually heroic, Our Heroes have to hook up with the aphorism-spouting Sphinx (Wes Studi) and have…a training montage…much to Mr. Furious’ (and my) chagrin. There’s a nice moment where Furious exposes the Sphinx’s aphorism-formula for the faux-profundity it is, but we all know where this is going…and I can’t help but tell the film to hurry up.
It misheard me. Instead of moving the story along, director Kinka Usher contents himself with moving the camera around, following Michael Bay’s First Rule of Editing (“Two seconds without a cut is two too damn long”). Darth Bay himself appears in a cameo role amongst the Legion of Doom Casanova Frankenstein assembles at his mansion. To view his inevitable triumph over Captain Amazing, of course. And because he’s got a plan. It’s the same plan The Joker had in Batman. The same one Big Boy Caprice had in Dick Tracy. Don’t these criminals know fusing everything into one big, unwieldy organization will just make it that much easier for some crusading DA to slap Rico charges around like they’re attached to his Pimp Hand? Or does Casanova plan to douse half that DA’s face in acid when/if the need arises? Because I gotta tell say, Frankenstein, that shit never works…at best, you’ll just create a new rival for yourself.
Usher’s interest in close-up reaction shots betray his commercial origins: he’s used to shooting actors oo-ing and ah-ing over the stretchiness of Dominos pizza cheese and he’s got no idea how to use the camera to convey any emotion more complex than Mr. Furious’ rage. Both the action scenes and the physical comedy suffer from this ineptitude…and I imagine the cast did too. That would explain why, half the time, they look like refugees from a George Lucus set, playing thing by ear because that’s the only way they to play it when your director has zero interest working with human beings. Nothing to do but your best and hope it all works out well.
Instead, Mystery Men worked out into an uneven morass. Some of Flaming Carrot‘s existentialistic musings might have improved things…or bogged things down further by forcing the film to cram is head up its own ass. We’ll never know. The few comedic bits here that do feel pre-planned aim for the Farrley-brothers crowd that made There’s Something About Mary a hit two years before, allowing everyone to ignore the fact that it was also a blazing sign of Western Civilization’s continued slide down the brown shoot of history. Paul Reuben’s character, Spleen, is the ultimate embodiment of this approach to comedy, one that’s still with us today. And what’s the most interesting thing he does? Get humped by a skunk. This is screenwriter Neil Cuthbert’s idea of Komedy. Now you know why 1989’s The Return of the Swamp Thing remains the most famous thing the man’s ever written.
Shame, really. Because every one of the Mystery Men is decent character inhabited well by professional actors. William H. Macy, in particular, is much too good for this and his Shoveler is much too good a character. There’s a lot of dramatic potential in portraying an actual blue collar superhero – as M. Night Shyamalan would show us the year after Mystery Men bombed.
There’s a scene where William H. Macy’s wife (who doesn’t believe in him) tells their child (who does), “Don’t encourage your father.” It’s a wonderful moment and, of all the rest of the cast, only Hank Azaria gets one like it. His Blue Raja must eventually come out (as a superhero) to his mother, with whom he shares a house in the best nerd tradition. I enjoyed the Bowler’s conversations with her dead dad, who’s skull adorns her bowling ball and who’s spirit may or may not be haunting it. I enjoyed the fact that, when our Mystery Men first confront Casanova Frankenstein, they do what gangs of strangely-dressed people the world over do when confronting arch rivals in the middle of the night and trash his fucking car.
I don’t like how, half way through, the film veers toward the predictable. Training montage leads to horrible accident leads to nadir. Nadir leads to a Crisis of Faith. How else could William H. Macy justify make a dramatic speech? Zzzzz….what? Oh. Nodded off there. Did I miss the blossoming of Ben Stiller’s awkward romance with that waitress he’s been failing to impress this whole time?
No. Here they are now. And she’s tell him, “Maybe people like you for who you really are.” Nice thought, honey…but you have noticed he’s Ben Stiller, haven’t you? Will self-acceptance and self-respect allow the Mystery Men to triumph? I might care if that were ever really in doubt.
Sprawling, scatterbrained, and stuffed full of too many characters (like many a much more famous “superhero team” film I could name) Mystery Men packs the screen with potential and then stands off to the side, ruthlessly refusing to exploit anything it’s got on hand. They could’ve gone the Ghostbusters route and discussed the blue collar superhero’s relationship to the City s/he nominally severs. They could’ve gone the Hancock route and discussed what one needs to do in this society to go from superpowered guttertrash wannabe to Hero of the People. Instead, they went the Hidden Fortress route and, after a Come to Jesus moment, Our Heroes storm Castle Frankenstein just in time to stop his evil scheme to…um…yeah…the movie kinda forgot that part. I suppose I should too.
I’ll tell you what this is: it’s inoffensive. The kind of film you respond to with a shrug and an, “Eh, why not?” whenever someone offers to put it in. And I would rather movies offend me if they refuse to excite me, inspire me, or make me think about something…other than all the wonderful things they should have done with their premise, cast, or setting. There are worse superhero pseudo-comedies but few are quite as disappointing. This coulda been so much more.
Instead, it’s further proof (as if any more were needed) that superhero movies can either take themselves seriously or die horrible, obscure deaths. If you want to make a superhero spoof, go and do it. If you want to film an extended comedian Bullshit Session, then by all means do that. But please, for the love of peat, pick a horse and stick with it until you get across the stream. It’s not as if this material doesn’t lend itself to humor…or mythic levels of drama. But if you can’t decide which to go for before you start shooting you should probably drop back a few steps in production. Exploit your material or the material will exploit you. That might not make any sense, but you see what listening to an hour of Sphinx-isms did to my state of mind?
Yeah, sorry Mystery Men. Better luck next time. By which I mean “never.” And a big thank you to all those who support independent movie criticism!
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