A Barren Wasteland
Directed by Jay Roach
Written by David E. Kelley and Sean O’Byrne
With Russell Crowe, Hank Azaria, Mary McCormack, Burt Reynolds, Colm Meaney
I never thought I had the capacity for such a statement, but since watching Mystery, Alaska, I have started to consider The Mighty Ducks as a masterful piece of cinema in comparison. From Jay Roach, director of the Austin Powers movies, and David E. Kelley, the creator of many a Boston-based television series, including Ally McBeal and The Practice, Mystery, Alaska is allegedly about “a small town on the outskirts of greatness.” Well, all I can say is that it certainly is on the outskirts of something. But what? Coherence? Cohesiveness? Human decency?
The movie is about a small-town hockey team (made recently famous by a feature in Sports Illustrated) that takes on the New York Rangers. This outside challenge exposes many quirks and conflicts within the locals. While preparing for the proverbial big game, the nontraditional players must cope with the influx of the outside world: media, commercialism, and even Mike Myers.
Unfortunately, Mystery, Alaska is not very well put-together. Many subplots and the general aimlessness of the theme dilute the effectiveness of the movie in general. There are so many simultaneous story-lines that the entire plot comes across as superficial. One minute the movie may be about a strict father trying to control his children’s lives, the next it may be about a hockey player having to skate around completely naked for the sake of his team’s honor, and the next it may be about the town’s Don Juan being shoveled over the head by a jilted lover. In one scene, for example, a character comments, “I play hockey and I fornicate because they are two fun things to do in cold weather.” In context, I suppose this may have been amusing; however, as it stood, it made the entire scene seem disjointed and the characters tense and strained.
Between being a complete gross-out comedy and a quasi-nostalgic look at the corruption of small town America, the movie is stretched thin, and oscillates between these two modes. Yet, there is not enough substance to carry both elements in one movie. Since Jay Roach and David E. Kelly are involved, the movie could be likened to a conversation between Austin Powers and Ally McBeal. It is hard imagine how forced and contrived the speech would be, but maybe it would be somewhat like this movie: very brash and confused. More than just maintaining its themes, the movie could have stood some editing. The R rating is certainly deserved by this movie (because of its gross-out aspects), and the film could have been simultaneously improved in content and cohesiveness if it was just edited with more thoughtfulness.
The character aspect of the movie is just as much of a mixed bag as the plot. Many of the characters who have bit parts in the movie -- Beth Littleford as a stuffy reporter whose fake nose freezes the second she steps into the Alaskan air and Mike Meyers as a temperamental sports correspondent -- are amusing, almost parodying the movie’s self-importance.
Russell Crowe, who was amazing in L.A. Confidential, brings an equal amount of emotional intensity to Mystery, Alaska in the role of the beleaguered team captain. Unfortunately, this is just another subplot and his intensity comes across as hollow; one actor cannot carry the entire emotional weight of a movie. Burt Reynolds, on the other hand, is as intense as to be downright laughable. Every single time he came on screen as the ultra-strict Judge, I had to suppress my urge to laugh. Again, it is partially a problem with the movie being deficient of a unifying plot, and the Judge storyline is just another one of the subplots. Reynolds’s character acts without motivation and without sufficient background for the audience to really feel anything (except, of course, amusement).
Slightly annoying to me personally was the painfully manipulative use of background music. The music is mostly either in complete conflict with the action or it over-sentimentalizes the scene. A movie should rely on the acting, the force of the plot, and on many other intrinsic factors in order to produce an effect in the audience. Relying on music to do this does not work.
In short, I left the theater feeling extremely unsatisfied for my two hours of time. The resolution of the movie and its numerous subplots could basically be summed up as, “there was a big hockey game and everything is fine now.” Just ten more minutes with the resolutions of all of the subplots would have made me at least feel like I had watched something other than a soap opera (it did contain more story-lines and over-seriousness than can be addressed). In fact, it would not have taken that much time, money or even creativity to make this movie a whole lot better, and I cannot imagine why the filmmakers let such a creature loose in movie theaters. They must believe that the audience has such a short attention span that they would not notice the gaping holes in the plot, preferring instead the quick (and botched) treatment of many subplots. My personal recommendation for this movie is that if you suddenly find yourself with eight extra dollars and just have to see a movie about hockey, rent The Mighty Ducks, pretend that they players are middle-aged instead of teenagers, and ponder ways to spend your remaining five bucks.