Friday, October 1, 1999

Half-baked

Movie: Mystery, Alaska

Posted on Fri, Oct 1, 1999 at 4:00 AM

**1/2
Mystery, Alaska
Length: 2 hours, 5 minutes
Studio: Hollywood Pictures
Website: http://movies.go.com/mysteryalaska/index.html
Release Date: 1999-10-01
Cast: Russell Crowe, Hank Azaria, Ron Eldard, Lolita Davidovich, Burt Reynolds
Director: Jay Roach
Screenwriter: David E. Kelley, Howard Baldwin
Music Score: Carter Burwell
WorkNameSort: Mystery, Alaska
Our Rating: 2.50

"Mystery, Alaska," the tale of an icy, isolated burg whose denizens are afflicted with an obsession-like ardor for hockey, has quirk written all over its high-concept plot. And it's equipped with a potentially thrilling finale: The town's ragtag team of puck slappers take on National Hockey League pros, with results that surprise the heck out of a nationwide television audience as well as game-caller Phil Esposito and a sour commentator played by typically goofy Mike Myers.

So why does this ensemble comedy, helmed by Jay Roach, director of the Austin Powers movies, leave us, uh, cold? Maybe it's the small-screen sensibility, courtesy of writer/producer David E. Kelley, responsible for "The Practice," "Ally McBeal" and other television dramas (along with this summer's atrocious Lake Placid).

Or perhaps we should blame the Disney effect for the movie's generic feel, underscored by the filmmakers' tendency to allow conflicts and personal transformations to slip by with little fanfare, after long build-ups to those crises.

Mayor Scott Pitcher, played by an unusually reserved Colm Meaney, for instance, comes face to face with his wife's lover, but the expected confrontation, one that's been brewing over several scenes, simply evaporates without explanation. Distinguished judge Walter Burns (Burt Reynolds) has a critical change of heart about his hometown's major preoccupation, but his conversion to the cause might be missed if you blink your eyes.

The quaintness and beauty of "Mystery" is nicely established, with shots of a small town forever blanketed with the snow that drapes over a nearby majestic mountain range (the Alberta Rockies subbing for Alaska). Then it is on to the perfunctory exposition, as "Mystery's" types and stereotypes parade across the screen. John Biebe (Russell Crowe, sadly bland) is the earthy, earnest sheriff and devoted family man, married to pretty, self-sacrificing Donna (Mary McCormack). She may or may not pine for the big-city life lived by prodigal son Charles Danner (Hank Azaria), a Sports Illustrated writer who has penned a piece praising "Mystery's" hockey fever.

Skank Marden (Ron Eldard) is a schoolteacher, the local Lothario, who makes his entrance with a graphic description of his most recent sexual conquest. A funny Michael McKean is Mr. Walsh, a foulmouthed representative of a Wal-Mart-type company. His investigation into the company's expansion into "Mystery" is met with a shot to the foot. Maury Chaykin is Bailey Pruitt, a blundering lawyer who makes the ultimate sacrifice for civic pride.

The attention-hungry Danner, who only has eyes for high-school sweetheart Donna, cooks up a scheme that will either bring glory to "Mystery" or subject the oddly named town to untold embarrassment.

The plan: The New York Rangers will come to town to battle the poor provincials in an exhibition game. "You brought back the one thing that could tear the heart out of this place," Crowe complains to his would-be rival.

"Mystery, Alaska" soldiers on to its predictably rah-rah conclusion with game footage that offers far less excitement than action shots of the violent, bloody sport might have provided, in the proper hands. Couples reunite, Biebe and his teammates find a measure of fame, and a pair of players utilize the big event as a method of escaping from their dead-end town. Unfortunately, not even Little Richard's hammy performance of the national anthem can save "Mystery, Alaska" from its sappy, half-baked self.

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