There is nothing so dismal on this earth as enforced fun. Sack races at company picnics, all-girl wedding showers, movies like "Mystery Men" -- they all have the power to sap your will to live.
But there's something especially maddening about a failed opportunity like "Mystery Men," a movie about a group of misfit superheroes that has so much going for it in the cast alone. It makes you wish that actors themselves could be superheroes, able to save the day by electrifying pokey scripts and leapfrogging over bad direction, all in a single bound. But there's only so much that the likes of William H. Macy, Hank Azaria and Ben Stiller can do when faced with director Kinka Usher's deadly arsenal of fish-eye lenses and low-angle shots, used for no reason other than novelty value. Laser guns that can slice a man in half are one thing, but novelty value is a far more insidious danger. Like carbon monoxide, it's a silent killer.
"Mystery Men" is set in a futuristic metropolis called Champion City that borrows elements from the "Batman" movies and pictures like "Blade Runner" and "The Fifth Element" -- it has a sleek, dark, deco-modern look but also seems vaguely seedy. Captain Amazing (Greg Kinnear) is the reigning superhero, as you can tell from his endorsements (his latex-tight uniform is heavily spotted with advertising logos, including one from Pepsi). He's the idol of all the fifth- and sixth-rate superheroes in town, the also-rans, which include The Shoveler (Macy), a sort of underground city worker who wears a miner's hat and wields a not-so-mighty spade; Mr. Furious (Stiller), a leather-clad hothead whose rage is supposed to turn him into a Mount Vesuvius of superhuman strength but doesn't; and The Blue Raja (Azaria), whose costume is decidedly not blue and who shows a peculiar talent for flinging forks.
When Captain Amazing is captured by the allegedly terrifying villain Casanova Frankenstein (the interminably dull Geoffrey Rush), the anxious also-rans huddle together with a plan to rescue him, hiring new members to beef up the force. Enter The Bowler (Janeane Garofalo), a blase Goth chick whose weapon of choice is a bowling ball with her dead father's skull encased inside; Invisible Boy (Kel Mitchell), who can make himself invisible only under certain tightly controlled circumstances; The Sphinx (Wes Studi), a muscle-bound dude in black who runs a superhero day camp and dispenses fake wisdom to his charges; and The Spleen (Paul Reubens), who simply farts and has disgusting pustules all over his face.
"Mystery Men" is supposed to be an action comedy, but there isn't nearly enough of either. The action sequences are noisy, poorly staged and not particularly fleet -- they're cartoony enough to suit the tone the movie's striving for, but there's nothing energizing about them. What's surprising about "Mystery Men" is that Bob Burden and Neil Cuthbert's script isn't exactly horrible. But even the occasional clever one-liners fall flat, and in most cases the actors seem to be undermined by Usher's direction: everyone's timing is off, which seems odd if you remember Stiller's performances in "Flirting With Disaster" and "There's Something About Mary," or if you have any sense of Hank Azaria's knack for phrasing from his role as the dog walker on TV's "Mad About You" or the myriad voices he's supplied for "The Simpsons."
More often than not, the actors simply sling their lines any which way, hoping they'll stick (Reubens is particularly ill served, with a role that barely acknowledges his subtly twisted genius). Garofalo starts out as a mildly appealing tough girl, but her usual shrugging and eye rolling is so magnified here that it wears you out. Kinnear, whose character could have been delectably snotty, appears in only a small portion of the movie, and his biggest scene is an inane exchange with the deadbeat villain Rush. Eddie Izzard and rap star Pras show up as Casanova Frankenstein's sidekicks (their characters are riffs on those of John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson in "Pulp Fiction") but, aside from Izzard's showcasing of a spectacular brocade suit, neither has much of anything to do.
And Ben Stiller, doing little more than clenching his teeth and turning on that crazy look in his eyes as if he'd flipped a switch, Vesuviates over the whole movie. Pissed off at the others, Mr. Furious stomps off to be on his own for a while; you barely realize what a relief that is until he reappears, when the movie continues to sag and groan even further.
Once in a while "Mystery Men" serves up a doofily funny moment, as when Ricky Jay, in a cameo as Captain Amazing's publicist, deadpans, "Look, I'm a publicist, not a magician," or when Stiller, a repository of malapropisms, sputters, "I'm a Pantera's box you don't want to open." But only William H. Macy as The Shoveler brings any depth or real humor to his character. He's the unsung hero, the guy who toils all day, gets his clothes dirty, comes home much too late to a loving but understandably frustrated wife and then gets up the next day to start the whole shebang again.
Macy carries the weight of that routine in his hunched shoulders and in his weary, Droopy Dawg eyes. Charming, earnest, endearingly gullible (he's the only one of the crew who refuses to believe that Captain Amazing is really millionaire Lance Hunt -- his big hero couldn't possibly be a mere mortal who wears glasses!), Macy is the only actor in "Mystery Men" who lives up to his potential. It's ironic that his character should be called The Shoveler. Of all his mates, as well as the movie's director, he's the only one who isn't shoveling.