Mystery Men hit theaters at the tail end of a decade when the mainstream traded in its Brooks Brothers suit for second-hand flannel, grew a goatee, developed a trendy heroin habit and tried to convince a generation of famously apathetic grunged-up slackazoids that they were totally into Nirvana back when they were still on Sub Pop. It was a golden age for the co-option of hip subcultures as corporations adopted a series of rebellious poses to facilitate the all-important business of selling sullen young people crap they don't really need.
It was an era when Jeremy Davies legendarily argued that Subaru was "like punk rock, only it's a car". If Subaru is like punk rock, only a car then Mystery Men is like a funky little independent cult comedy only it's a giant, bloated, special effects-intensive, big-budget studio blockbuster.
I have a lot of affection for Mystery Men, which held up surprisingly well on my third viewing but it has some fairly huge liabilities. For starters it looks and feels more like Batman & Robin than any movie should. That of course includes Batman & Robin. Mystery Men looks more or less exactly like what it's spoofing, which either makes it more subversive or less. To me at least it seems terribly askew that an adaptation of a cult Dark Horse comic about second-rate superheroes is characterized by an almost blinding shininess. In my viewer's cut of Mystery Men director Kinka Usher would have been fired the minute his dailies betrayed a Schumacherian comic-book slickness and replaced by Jim Jarmusch or Terry Gilliam. Hey, a boy can dream, can't he? Mystery Men requires a sly, deadpan, minimalist sensibility instead of the campy excess of Usher's comic book-inspired direction, with its extreme angles and unflattering close-ups.
It somehow doesn't seem coincidental that both Michael Bay and Dane Cook have cameos in Mystery Men though Bay was sorely overlooked come Oscar time despite the passion and conviction he brought to his single line: "Dude, can we bring brewskis?". Then again Bay and Usher share a background in television commercials and Usher directs with an ad vet's obsessive need to make each individual image radiate as much iconic force as possible. Mystery Men is consequently an adaptation of an independent comic book that feels like it was directed by the kind of guy who'd throw Poindexters into lockers in high school for doing geeky things like reading independent comic books.
Like Jarhead, Mystery Men was greeted by a culture-wide sigh of mild disappointment. The film certainly generated its share of positive reviews but there nevertheless seemed to be a consensus that Mystery Men was at the very least insufficiently awesome, especially considering its ripe source material and once-in-a-lifetime cast. Where else will you find Tom Waits, Cee-Lo Green, William H. Macy, Ben Stiller, Janeane Garofalo, Pras, Wes Studi, Ricky Jay, Eddie Izzard, Geoffrey Rush, Paul Reubens and Greg Kinnear all inhabiting the same big-screen comic book? Alas Mystery Men boasts more oddball icons than interesting roles. Reubens' character amounts to little more than an extended fart joke while Izzard is wasted in a one-joke henchman role.
But if there aren't enough cool roles to go around Mystery Men benefits from a lot of spot-on casting, especially Ben Stiller as a powder keg of rage whose power, like my own, comes from his boundless rage and super-bowler Janeane Garofalo as the superhero most likely to volunteer at a lesbian vegan food co-op. Then there's Hank Azaria as "The Blue Raja", an effete fork-throwing superhero with a costume and accent out of a 1940s British b-movie and William H. Macy as the Shoveler, a rock-solid family man and really, really, really good shoveler.
But perhaps the film's most memorable role belongs to Greg Kinnear, who is typecast to perfection as both smarmy corporate superhero "Captain Amazing"–whose costume is as festooned with the logos of his sponsors as a Nascar driver– and his curiously bespectacled billionaire alter-ego Lance Hunt. Kinnear serves as the plot's catalyst when he's kidnapped by super-villain Geoffrey Rush.
After much debate, small talk and bickering the Mystery Men tardily spring into action to rescue him with the help of new recruits and the leadership of "The Sphinx", a serene fount of inanely formulaic aphorisms delivered with the perfect note of cracked mysticism.
I wrote extensively about the "Curse of Bigness" earlier in this project and I think that's definitely at play here, especially since James Gunn's The Specials proved that with the right script, cast and premise a cult comedy about second-rate superheroes didn't need gaudy production values, expensive special effects or elaborate set-pieces to succeed. The Specials is every bit as funny and clever as its big-budget twin at roughly one seventieth the price.
Mystery Men excels during uncomplicated scenes where the Mystery Men bicker, drink coffee, discuss tactics (publicist or no publicist? Should they be networking more?) and generally behave like old friends stuck in a state of perpetual adolescence. In that respect it echoes the nearly action-free Specials as well as The Tick and Aqua Teen Hunger Force.
If Mystery Men is never quite as funny as it should be it's nevertheless quite funny and even pointed at times, as when Kel Mitchell discusses "White Flight and the Black Menace", a super-hero team that always works together. Anyone else have any favorite lines? It's got quite the quotable script. Mystery Men bombed horrifically upon its release. It reportedly cost just under seventy million dollars to make and grossed less than half that. It seems to be developing a bit of a cult following however though that doesn't seem to have done Usher much good. He hadn't directed a film since. It could be worse though. Screenwriter Neil Cuthbert did manage to get another script made. The film? The Adventures Of Pluto Nash. Maybe unemployment isn't so bad after all.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success?:Secret Success