Mystery, Alaska (1999)
Directed by Jay Roach
Cast: Russell Crowe, Mary McCormack, Ron Eldard, Lolita Davidovich, Colm Meaney, Burt Reynolds, Hank Azaria, Ryan Northcott, Rachel Wilson, Scott Grimes, Maury Chaykin, Judith Ivey, Adam Beach, Megyn Price, Mike Myers, Little Richard.
1999 118 minutes
Rated: (for sex and profanity).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, October 2, 1999.
"Mystery, Alaska" is an uneasy hybrid of two genres, one of which is way past its prime. At first glance and through the advertising campaign for the film, it appears to be a sports movie for the whole family, about a small-town hockey team, a la "The Mighty Ducks." The "sports movie" has, in the last fifteen years, become a reliable staple of big-studio films, from 1984's "The Natural," to 1988's "Major League," to 1988's "Bull Durham," to 1992's "The Might Ducks," to 1994's "D2: The Mighty Ducks," to 1994's "Major League 2," to 1996's "D3: The Mighty Ducks," to 1998's "Major League 3: Back to the Minors," to the currently-in-release "For Love of the Game." Just taking a gander at the aforementioned pictures, which amount to roughly only 5% of the total "sports movies" in recent years, is quite a dizzying and tedious task. By now, films that conclude with the biggest cliche of them all, "The Big Game," are no longer suspenseful, nor can audiences honestly care about the outcome. The protagonists either win (which they usually do) or they lose; there aren't many other twists you can throw into the rather limitied proceedings.
But this is where the formula for "Mystery, Alaska" gets a little tricky (and mind-boggling, for that matter). The film is rated R, for several sexual situations (including a premature ejaculation scene that was carried out to much more successful effect in last summer's "American Pie") and for a dizzying parade of profanity (let's just say the F-word is not used sparingly). While much of the film does center on the rag-tag hockey team in the snowy mountain town of Mystery, Alaska, and the impending game that they will be playing against the professional New York Rangers, the rest of the 118-minute film dwells around the many characters who inhabit the team or are a part of the town. Subplots are brought up almost ludicrously too often, so that many different minor stories are being played out simultaneously. Extramarital affairs, fatal heart attacks, a gun-shooting, a trial, and teenage puppy love are just a hint of the issues that are dealt with throughout, therefore cutting off all chances of children seeing and enjoying the film. Consequently, the hockey scenes are portrayed in such a tried-and-true, flatly-filmed manner that adults will most likely be bored with these moments. And yet, if "Mystery, Alaska" fails to attract an audience (since there really isn't one), at least you have to commend director Jay Roach ("Austin Powers"), screenwriters David E. Kelley (TV's "The Practice") and Sean O'Byrne, and its distributor Hollywood Pictures, for having the courage to make a somewhat off-beat film that does not cut corners or condescend to a certain audience simply to earn a quick buck. It doesn't always work, and the screenplay remains seriously flawed and uneven, but it's unusually ambitious for a "sports movie" and should be admired on that simple basis. Let us all be thankful, at least, that "Mystery, Alaska" is not "D4: The Mighty Ducks."
The film takes a look at all of the interrelated townspeople of Mystery, as they prepare for their run-in with the Rangers, and most of the characters are given their own individual stories, which are not all equally efficient and often clank together like giant pieces of metal. John (Russell Crowe) is a thirtysomething married man and sheriff who lives to play hockey every week on the team, until he is abruptly cut in order to make room for the much-faster Steve (Ryan Northcott), a bright-eyed teenager. Fellow teammate Skank Marden (Ron Eldard) is a womanizer who "loves to play ice hockey and fornicate because those are the two most fun things to do in cold weather." Unfortunately, Skank has currently begun to have an affair with the unhappy wife (Lolita Davidovich) of Pitcher (Colm Meaney), the town major, who has forgotten how to show love and human compassion. Then there's Judge Walter Burns (Burt Reynolds), a strict father whose son, Birdie (Scott Grimes), another hockey player, is constantly being put down, and a teen daughter (Rachel Wilson) who is the girlfriend of Steve. Finally, the arrival of Charles Danner (Hank Azaria), a wealthy former resident of Mystery who returns with the big news about the New York Rangers, causes John's wife (Mary McCormack) to question whether she made the wrong choice years ago when she decided to get married, have kids, and stay put in the tiny burg of Mystery.
The scenes of people playing ice hockey in "Mystery, Alaska" are kept to a pleasing minimum (discarding the neverending climax), so that the characters themselves have a chance to be developed. While nothing pleases me more than a character-driven motion picture, and this one oddly reminded me of 1996's underrated treasure, "Beautiful Girls," the writing is too often lackluster and not nearly as witty and memorable as writer David E. Kelley's current television ventures, including "The Practice" and "Ally McBeal." Also, where "Beautiful Girls" was an intelligently-drawn comedy-drama about the relationships between people in a snowy U.S. town, "Mystery, Alaska" is sloppy and often too neat-and-tidy for its own good. There are no laughs, even though the film constantly attempts to be funny and, aside from two or three particular instances, the drama is rarely effective the way it could have easily been had the screenplay been written with a surer hand.
On the positive side, the inner turmoil of John, handled well by Russell Crowe, as he nears the end of his hockey career, is noticably similar to that of Kevin Costner in the higher-profile "For Love of the Game." While Costner was instructed to sit around and whine and pout, Crowe's struggle to enter into the next phase of his life is more subtle, and therefore, cogent. Additionally, the underused Lolita Davidovich (1994's "Intersection," one of the most overlooked films of the decade) is touching as the mayor's wife, a woman confused about her marriage and unsure what her recent affair means. Although more could have been done with it, the sweetest relationship comes in the form of the youngest one, between 17-year-old Steve and his girlfriend, who fears his rising popularity will cause him to forget about her. The two performers, Ryan Northcott and Rachel Wilson, making their major film debuts, strike the right notes throughout.
A perceptible strain for melodrama, further subplots come off as nothing more than gimmicks to add an extra amount of conflicts, including one in which a character suddenly dies, and another that feels like it's come right out of a John Grisham courtroom drama. More focus on the interesting characters and their predicaments, and the complete cutting of these unnecessary storylines, might have aided the film quite well, overall.
After "Austin Powers," its sequel, and this more adult film, director Jay Roach has not proven himself yet to be anything more than an 'adequate' filmmaker. He usually aims for the obvious, and in this film's case, distractingly forces silly humor onto the rest of the material, including an insipid, totally unfunny cameo by Mike Myers. "Mystery, Alaska" is a respectable film as far as "sports movies" go, but it really is frustrating to watch a group of capable performers that are so far above the given material. It's clearly a case in which a film's aspirations were higher in the planning stages than what was translated to film.
©1999 by Dustin Putman