Lovable Loser Superheroes Save the Day
Reviewed by Beth Hannan Rimmels
Finally, someone gets it. Thats the biggest problem with comic book-based movies no one usually "gets" them in Hollywood. All they know is that a given project or character has been around a long time, like Batman or Superman, or they make a lot of money, like The X-Men, or they look really cool, like Sandman, and some producer or studio buys the rights and then proceeds to mess up the project entirely. Tim Burton mostly got it with Batman but Joel Schumacher didnt have a clue. Richard Donner did a great job it the first Superman movie but anyone who thinks Nicolas Cage, fine actor though he is, would make a great Superman definitely doesnt get it.
Which is why Im so pleased with Mystery Men. If any project seemed doomed to be misunderstood it would be Bob Burdens unlikely superheroes. True, its being produced by Dark Horse Entertainment for Universal Pictures and Mike Richardson, founder of Dark Horse Comics, is one of the producers, but Richardsons film track record is mixed. For every The Mask is a Barb Wire. The fact that MM is also Kinka Ushers first job as a film director was also potentially worrisome. Taco Bell commercials arent the same as a feature-length film that needs a carefully satiric tone. Fortunately, it works.
Ben Stiller, William H. Macy and Hank Azaria star as, respectively, Mr. Furious, The Shoveler and the Blue Raja, fourth-rate superheroes in Champion City, which has a low crime rate thanks to the good work of Captain Amazing (Greg Kinnear). In fact, crime is so low that the good Captain is losing his endorsement deals. Needing a major villain to maintain interest, he recommends Casanova Frankenstein (Geoffrey Rush) for parole. Can you say "major mistake"?
It gives little away to say that Captain Amazing is captured and the lesser-known heroes have to step up to the plate. The problem is that theyre not very good. So they recruit additional teammates (Invisible Boy and The Spleen) and hold superhero auditions. The latter is a rotation of every lame idea for a superhero you can think of, but it eventually gets them The Bowler (Janeane Garofalo).
The plots not terribly original. Its obvious theyll have bouts of insecurity, then build up their confidence and finally get the job done. The fun is in the characters, actors and performances. Each of the leads is perfect from Macys deadpan, earnest intentions to Stillers frustration and Garofalos prickliness. Kel Mitchells wide-eyed idealism is touching as Invisible Boy and balanced nicely by Paul Reubens The Spleen, whose superpower, while effective, is embarrassing.
But in some ways the casting is too much of a good thing. Lena Olin is wasted as Dr. Anabel Lee, Frankensteins psychiatrist. Louise Lasser has only three brief scenes as the unknowing mother of the Blue Raja. Ricky Jay has, essentially, a cameo as Captain Amazings publicist. Eddie Izzard is great as Disco Boy Tony P, but with everything else going on, hes almost lost. Tom Waits is great fun as Dr. Heller, who provides the team with techno gizmos.
The pace is a tad uneven, but pacing a film like this is hell. It needs to be satiric, hip and funny with just enough heart to give it some weight. Nothing drags but there are stretches between laugh-out-loud moments. Still, the chemistry and the actors carry the film even when the story doesnt.
And could someone please find a comedy for Garofalo and Stiller? Or better yet, a nice, edgy romantic comedy? While not romantically involved with each other in Mystery Men, the two share an unmistakable chemistry honed by their real-life friendship and previous work together. I would have much rather seen them in Youve Got Mail than the predictable pairing of Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. Garofalo and Stillers attitudes could have taken the film to a new level instead of treading the same old Sleepless in Seattle path. Edgy and romance can work.
But enough tangents. The point is Mystery Men is a delightfully skewed look at superheroes and the superhero genre. If Hollywood can get this right, maybe theres hope for Superman after all.
(A Universal Pictures release. Directed by Kinka Usher.)
Review © 1999 Beth Hannan Rimmels. Accompanying stills © 1999 Universal Pictures.