(US 1999) Rated PG-13
** 1/2 Stars
Ben Stiller, William H. Macy, Hank Azaria, Janeane Garofalo, Paul Reubens, Geoffrey Rush, Greg Kinnear, Eddie Izzard, Wes Studi, Tom Waits, Kel Mitchell, Clair Forlani
Directed by Kinka Usher
Universal * 120 minutes
MYSTERY MEN, Kinka Usher's bizarre comedy based on the Dark Horse comic and starring Ben Stiller, is a 1-1/2 hour Stiller sketch. If you ever saw his comedy sketch show during its short run on The Fox Network a few years ago, you know that when Stiller is funny, he's hilarious, and when he's not, he misses spectacularly, and the same is true here.
In Mystery Men, Stiller, as the chronically angry Mr. Furious, is surrounded by some of the funniest people in the business, playing a ragtag group of superheroes. Hank Azaria is the Blue Raja, who lives with his mother (Louise Lasser), dresses in what looks like an old afghan, and throw forks. William H. Macy is The Shoveler, clad in his son's catcher's gear, a miner's hat, and carrying a shovel. Paul Reubens is Spleen, whose superpower involves flatulence, a gag appreciated by the sub-20 audience in the theatre at my viewing. Janeane Garofalo is, well, Janeane Garofalo, as The Bowler. She carries her dead gangster father's head encased in a bowling ball. Kel Mitchell, of Nickelodeon fame, is The Invisible Boy, who has yet to demonstrate his power; and Wes Studi is The Sphinx, a Yoda-like quasi-mystic given to nonsequiturs that clearly spoof the old Kung Fu TV series, such as "You must lash out with every limb, like the octopus who plays the drums."
And these are the guys who made the cut. The rejects are The Waffler (whose power is contained in his waffle iron, dueling Wonder Woman clones, who exist only to include a female wrestling sequence, and the PMS Avenger, who only works four days a month. ("You got a problem with that?")
OK, you get the picture.
The first half-hour is largely a big-budget mess, as it sets up Captain Amazing (Greg Kinnear) as a celebrity/product endorser in need of a new villain to spice up his sagging image. Champion City looks as if it's composed of rejected parts from Tim Burton's old BATMAN set. A rather lame scene of gratuitous destruction at a senior citizens' home party sets up Captain Amazing's surface glamour. After he machinates the release of Casanova Frankenstein (Academy Award Winner Geoffrey Rush, looking amazingly like Howard Stern), merely so he'll have a villian to fight, Frankenstein takes him captive.
Once these superhero wannabes take it upon themselves to save Champion City, the one-liners come fast and furious. The film is full of throwaway, blink-and-you'll miss them bits, such as "Sally's Auto Dismantlers -- Quality-Free Parts" and references to "Harley-compatible" motorcycles. The talented cast is more than up to the material, with a few real standouts. Hank Azaria, undoubtedly one of the most talented and versatile comedic actors in the business, is appropriately deadpan as the British-accented Blue Raja Who Doesn't Wear Blue. Paul Reubens continues his post-porn-theatre career promisingly, if sophomorically, as Spleen, the flatulent, acne'ed, yet horny demihero. Garofalo and Stiller demonstrate their strangely ambivalent, yet symbiotic offscreen relationship as a bickering Bowler and Mr. Furious, although Stiller's character is probably the weakest link in this superhero chain.
Once the hijinks get going, the script is crisp and often hilarious. William H. Macy is a perfect deadpan straight man, with lines such as "We've got a blind date with destiny...and it looks like she's ordered the lobster." Geoffrey Rush, in the what-the-heck-is-he-doing-in-this-picture role as the cartoon villain, is a far cry from his restrained Walsingham in ELIZABETH, or even his Philip Henslowe in SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE. Yet acting students will want to look at this performance as a rare example of an over-the-top characterization that stays just this side of going over the top. Rush seems to be having a grand old time. The picture is utterly stolen, however by Wes Studi as The Sphinx. This actor, who customarily plays the Wise Tribal Chieftain, has an absurd dignity in his silly caped costume, as he belabors the obvious and spouts quotable, if nonsensical psychobabble aphorisms such as "You must be like the wolf pack, not the six pack." If you see this movie, write them down. You'll be glad you did.
I especially liked Janeane Garofalo's inclusion of "people who support local music and independent film" in Macy's sappy paean to "the good, little people" at the film's end.
MYSTERY MEN is either a great kids' movie that adults can laugh at or a great grownups' movie to which you can safely take the kids. Most of the violence is cartoonish, and only two instances in which individuals meet with an unfortunate demise might be a bit intense for young children. It's terribly uneven, but when it's funny, it hits dead-on.
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