Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
"LAST OF THE MONSTER KIDS" - Available Now on the Amazon Kindle Marketplace!

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

NO ENCORES: Mystery Men (1999)

1. Mystery Men (1999)
Director: Kinka Usher

Welcome to a new reoccurring feature at Film Thoughts! I’ve been writing my Director Report Cards for eight years now. The series has evolved into long, ridiculously detailed reviews of every feature film in a director’s career. Yet what about filmmakers that have only made one feature? This is the purpose of No Encores. To examine why a filmmaker stumbled after only one movie. To see if sometimes maligned or overlooked films have positive qualities of their own. For such a project, I knew “Mystery Men” would have to be my first choice. It’s a film I’ve seen countless times over the years, quote almost daily, and have always had an inordinate affection for. It’s the only directorial credit of commercial maker Kinka Usher.

Champion City is a bustling metropolis defended by Captain Amazing, a corporate sponsored superhero decked out with high-tech weapons and gear. Yet Amazing’s done too good of a job of fighting crime and has left himself without any worthy adversary. Searching for a challenging fight, he frees his archenemy, master criminal Casanova Frankenstein. Frankenstein is smarter then Amazing and quickly captures him. Because “Mystery Men” isn’t about Captain Amazing. Instead, a team of wannabe superheroes with questionable abilities – ranging from boundless rage, mastery of silverware and shovels, and super-charged flatulence – have to save the day. That is, if they can stop bickering first.

Listen, “Mystery Men” is not a great movie. It’s too long, at over two hours. It has just as many gags that fall flat as ones that succeed. Some of its secondary characters are overly obnoxious or ridiculous. I’m not blind to the film’s flaws. Having said that, “Mystery Men” is a film I’ve come to love. The movie has a free-wheeling sense of absurdity that suits it well. It’s a silly premise that the film exploits for maximum silliness. As a comic book nerd, I also appreciate the enthusiasm and fun the script has thinking up unconventional superheroes. It’s not that the Blue Raja or the Bowler have useless powers. They just aren’t the typical powers. The film’s slant on the superhero genre is clever, fresh, and subversive. Captain Amazing is corporately sponsored but ultimately a selfish blowhard. The Mystery Men are totally independent oddballs and prove more virtuous then the city’s biggest hero. That’s a moral I can get behind too.

Of course, the real reason I love “Mystery Men” is its talented, diverse cast and highly quotable dialogue. Ben Stiller has said not nice things about the film, despite also starring in such duds as “Little Fockers” and that shitty “Heartbreak Kid” remake. However he felt about the film, Stiller is consistently hilarious. Mr. Furious is a character designed to play towards Stiller’s strength. Of all the Mystery Men, his talent set is the least practical. His “boundless rage” is intentionally fabricated. However, Mr. Furious’s gimmick forces him to respond to normal events with exaggerated, goofy anger. Such as his boss yelling at him to “junk” an armored vehicle, the mock-angry way he apologizes to his friends, and his incredibly awkward attempts to ask out a cute waitress. When that gimmick falls apart in the film’s last act – when Roy realizes how dumb his superpower is – the film reveals some of its best moments. The rest of the Mystery Men's attempts to enrage Mr. Furious produce some unforgettable one-liners. “You dress in the manner of a male prostitute!” And so on.

Stiller is funny but my favorite of the ensemble cast is unassuming William H. Macy. Macy is the Shoveler, whose gift – he shovels and shovels well – at least has some practical combat application. He’s also a devoted family man. His wife not-so-subtly attempts to discourage his crime fighting. Her passive-aggressive reaction to his superheroics provides some of “Mystery Men’s” funniest moment. “If someone vomits in my pool, I’m leaving you” is funny. Macy’s deadpan response – “That’s fair” – is a line I quote all the friggin’ time. Macy’s earthly everyman qualities allows him to be the straight man to the film’s many cut-ups. When the character bust loose with a funny line of his own, such as his rousing speech centered around an egg salad sandwich, it produces even more laughs.

The third corner of the central trio is Hank Azaria’s Blue Raja. The master of silverware, which most decidedly doesn’t include knives, the Raja is neither Indian nor features any blue in his costume. Azaria, and the character, puts on a painfully fake British accent for the character. With most any other performer, this would be an irritating quirk. Azaria, however, has been doing funny voices for most of his career. Moreover, the Blue Raja’s character arc is one of the most knowing in the film. He lives with his weirdly mousy mother, played by Louise Lasser, who mistakes her son’s superhero hobby for pot smoking. When he’s with his mom, the Raja drops his accent, revealing himself as a deeply insecure nerd. This makes Azaria something like the audience surrogate, someone with more enthusiasm then skill, desperately struggling to prove himself in a chaotic world. Also, Azaria manages to make a whole series of goofy fork puns consistently amusing.

Janeane Garofalo has not found many films that truly utilize her particular comedic stylings. As the Bowler, she frequently has a chance to trot out her dry wit and deadpan delivery. Lines that aren’t funny on their face – “As have I!” “Crazy chicken world…” – becomes hilarious in her mouth. The character also has a fantastic gimmick. Her central power, of a bowling ball possessed by the spirit of her deceased father, is certainly the most visually interesting of all the character’s abilities. What really makes this funny is that she carries on conversations with the bowling ball. We can’t hear what the hostile spirit of Carmine the Bowler says, meaning Garofalo’s irritated answers become bemused nonsequiturs. There’s also some classic culture clash humor here, as the father is clearly not as progressive as his daughter. This is best displayed when Garofalo braces against her dad’s apparent homophobia, the value of male parents, and an agreement concerning grad school.

I’ve already mentioned that “Mystery Men” is packed start-to-finish with hilarious lines of dialogue. Every major character gets a memorable line or two. However, many of the film’s funniest lines come from Wes Studi. A veteran character actor of considerable range, Studi plays the Sphinx, the terribly mysterious mentor to the Mystery Men. Aside from one sequence where he cuts some guns in half with his mind, the Sphinx’s primary ability is to throw out baffling, circular aphorisms. Studi delivers each of these lines with not only a straight face but utmost seriousness. Whether he’s ordering others to balance tack hammers on their heads or lash out like a drum-playing octopus, Studi barks each absurd line with a hilarious self-assurdness. The entire training sequence also generates some of the film’s biggest laughs, such as the team’s inability to believe in the powers of their teammates.

“Mystery Men” has a pretty large cast for a goofy comedy. Not every one of the performers get to shine. Paul Reubens happily embraces his slimy side as the Spleen. The character is one long fart joke, by design. This is not the most clever gag in the script, even if Reubens does his best to get some humor out of the part. Kel Mitchell, perhaps better known as one half of “Kenan and Kel,” plays the Invisible Boy. Only able to become invisible when no one is looking, Kel’s power becomes useful exactly once throughout the film. Mitchell’s gets some funny lines, such as dryly describing a situation to his apathetic father or listing off more absurd superheroes, but he’s somewhat lost among everything else happening in the movie.

Who is opposing our quirky batches of heroes? Among a cast full of comedy veterans is Academy Award winning thespian Geoffrey Rush. Playing the awesomely named Casanova Frankenstein, Rush sports an intentionally goofy German accent. Rush brings some hilarious quirks to the part that are all his own, such as his snake-ish hisses or bizarre proclamation. Also floating around the supporting cast is Tom Waits as Dr. Heller, an inventor of non-lethal weaponry. Waits’ own eccentricities are well suited to to the absurd universe of “Mystery Men.” His gravelly voice adds extra hilarity to lines about canned tornadoes or blame throwers. Also, I have to mention Greg Kinner as Captain Amazing, who is a perfectly hatable conceited assholes.

Truthfully, as much as I’ve discussed how much “Mystery Men” amuses me, I’ve only scratched the surface. The film is fulled of goofy, small gags. Such as the number of even sillier superheroes that appear at the try-outs. Among them are Dane Cook as the Waffler – maybe the funniest thing he’s ever done – and Doug Jones as Pencil Head. Or how about the peculiar set of criminal gangs that Casanova Frankenstein unites? Such as the Disco Boys, lead by a hilarious Eddie Izzard? Izzard gets some phenomenal lines of his own, declaring disco alive and his protection from the god of hair care. Also among Frankenstein’s troops are a gang of college fratboys (appropriately led by Michael Bay), a bizarre gang of Asian gangsters, and women warriors in color-coded dresses.  Or, shit, how about the Herkiner Battle Jitney, the endlessly amusing name of the team’s battle vehicle? I don’t know if anyone else finds this stuff as funny but “Mystery Men’s” particular brand of silliness really appeals to me.

You certainly can’t say the film’s budget isn’t up there on the screen. Aside from the fantastic cast, the film also has some fantastic production design. Champion City is another sci-fi metropolis inspired by the cities of “Blade Runner.” The architecture is crowded, industrial, and multi-ethnic. Casanova Frankenstein’s mansion is fitted with bizarre architecture. His master weapon – known as the Frackulator – twist the people and world around him into a bizarre, warped vision. When this weapon is activated, it proves surprisingly disturbing. Watching someone turned inside out and twisted around into nightmarish approximations of the human form is pretty dark for a silly comedy like this. Yet it’s another layer to “Mystery Men’s” odd appeal.

It’s not too difficult to surmise why Kinka Usher has never directed another film after “Mystery Men.” The film was a costly flop, grossing back less then half its 68 million dollar budget. The reviews were not especially kind. Stiller isn’t the only cast member to express disgust over the film, as Artie Lang has also openly hated on the flick. Moreover, apparently Usher found the shoot difficult. The various egos of the large cast collided and Usher, after working primarily in commercials, found a big budget movie uncomfortable. Despite all of this, “Mystery Men” has found a cult following. This is mostly thanks to the inventive gags, loaded cast, and unforgettable one-liners. Considering we live in a film world now dominated by superhero movies, a subversive spoof like “Mystery Men” was even somewhat ahead of its time. It’s a film I’ve watched many times before and will doubtlessly watch many more times. [9/10]

1 comment:

Optimistic Existentialist said...

Sounds intriguing...I shall watch it sometime!