Mystery Men (1999)
Directed by Kinka Usher
Cast: Ben Stiller, William H. Macy, Hank Azaria, Janeane Garofalo, Kel Mitchell, Paul Reubens, Greg Kinnear, Geoffrey Rush, Wes Studi, Tom Waits, Claire Forlani, Eddie Izzard, Jenifer Lewis, Lena Olin.
1999 121 minutes
Rated: (for comic violence and profanity).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, August 7, 1999.
I'm not sure who director Kinka Usher is, but thanks to him and screenwriter Neil Cuthbert, the superhero comedy, "Mystery Men," is the most depressing cinematic experience of the year. Not the worst ("Inspector Gadget" and "Wing Commander" narrowly edge it out on that disreputable title), but easily the most dreary and saddening, as we are forced to watch a cast of fabulous actors, usually appearing in smart independent films, flounder within a movie that gives none of them an actual distinctive character to work with or, for that matter, anything at all to do, aside from be continuously humiliated by the absolute inanity of the screenplay.
An obvious take-off of "Batman" and "Superman," "Mystery Men" sets us smack dab in the middle of Champion City, as if it was a rejected set from Joel Schumacher's version of Gotham City. When the city's reigning superhero, Captain Amazing (Greg Kinnear), is kidnapped by arch-nemesis Casanova Frankenstein (Geoffrey Rush), it is up to a squadron of loser superheroes to save him, all of which have their own separate power or talent (if you can even call it that). There's Mr. Furious (Ben Stiller), the Shoveler (William H. Macy), and the Blue Raja (Hank Azaria, wielding lethal forks and spoons upon the enemy). Saving the likes of Captain Amazing, however, is going to take more than three rejects, so coming to their aide are three more wannabe superheroes--Invisible Boy (Kel Mitchell),a teen who claims he can become invisible "only when nobody is looking"; the Spleen (Paul Reubens), who knocks people out with his rancid flatulence; and the Bowler (Janeane Garofalo), equipped with a see-through bowling ball that holds her beloved father's skull inside. Are these six characters enough to overcome Casanova Frankenstein? Do dogs bark? Do cats meow? Do pigs snort? I rest my case.
The almost laughably unfunny jokes in "Mystery Men" is cause enough to question the intelligence of its thought-to-be superb cast. Let's take a look at the actors, while we're at it: Ben Stiller ("There's Something About Mary," "Your Friends and Neighbors"), Janeane Garofalo ("Romy and Michele's High School Reunion," "The Truth About Cats and Dogs"), William H. Macy ("Fargo," "Boogie Nights"), Greg Kinnear ("As Good As It Gets"), Geoffrey Rush ("Shine"), and Paul Reubens ("Pee Wee's Big Adventure"). If that weren't enough, Claire Forlani, a standout in "Meet Joe Black," is painfully wasted (as is everyone else, of course) as the only 'normal' character in the whole film, a diner waitress and potential love interest to Stiller. Heavy usage of highly euphoric, mind-alterting substances had to have been used in order for these actors to sign on to this $85-million movie that looks like a $5-million direct-to-video effort. Either that, or they turn out to not have any taste in films after all...nah! Drugs definately played a large part in the casting process.
So-called comedy flies at a rapid rate throughout the film, but the problem is none of it is the least bit funny, only groan-inducing and lame. Supposedly, 60-70% of the dialogue was improvised on the spot by the actors, which leads me to believe that not only was the script bad, but the cast realized this and tried to fix it with their stand-up comedy abilities. Improvisation on the spot must be one of their weak spots, unfortunately, since very rarely does anyone say anything clever, and even then it is a throwaway line that is all but forgotten about a second afterwards. "Mystery Men" proves that no matter how good the actors may be, they cannot salvage a film if they aren't even given the chance to develop their own individual personalities.
'Excruciating' would be the perfect word to describe physically watching this movie. Every element on every level is inept in every respect, and the non-stop, stylized comic-book action sequences and idiotic dialogue is akin to watching an Akiva Goldsman-written fourth "Batman" sequel. If anything, an empty water bottle came in quite handy while I was watching the film, for if I couldn't have handled it in my hand, played with it, tore off the paper wrapping, etc., I would have been in dire danger of dozing off.
If there is a bright spot to be found at all in "Mystery Men," beyond the unbearable filmmaking stench of desperation, it is Janeane Garofalo, who is fun to watch in every movie she's in. She ultimately is not very fun to watch here, simply because the rest of the movie is so nauseatingly awful, but she does have a few good lines and shines just by appearing on the screen. Like everyone else, though, there was no character to work with, and Garofalo's only distinctive quality was that she was actually hip and snappy. In other words, far to kewl to be hanging out with the rest of those nitwits.
©1999 by Dustin Putman