"Mystery, Alaska"

This small film about a small town and its small hockey team tells nothing more than a little Cinderella story.

Published October 1, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

If Charles Dickens cared for ice hockey, and if he were in the habit of writing bad movies, he would have written "Mystery, Alaska." He didn't, and wasn't, so we have "Ally McBeal" producer David E. Kelley to thank for inventing this filmic townscape, a thin tribute to the little guys, the big dreamers, the wise father, the hurting father, the stoic father and ice, ice, everywhere ice.

Like Dickens -- or "The Simpsons," for that matter -- director Jay Roach tries to make the setting itself a character. But where London or Springfield pop up in three dimensions with sweep and detail, the town of Mystery can't. It contains nothing more than weather and a set of one-dimensional cut-outs: its residents. Chewing up scenery are a mayor, a lawyer, a judge, a misfit, a mayor's wife, an aging athlete, an aging athlete's wife and 10 spirited pond-hockey players, each with one personality quirk or another. Not one of them is funny -- an oversight that neither Dickens nor "The Simpsons" would make. That makes it nearly impossible to find any depth in the movie's breadth.

Mystery outcast Charlie Danner (Hank Azaria) bears big news when he returns to his proudly sleepy hockey village after a misguided foray to New York City. Through an odd turn of events, the New York Rangers have agreed to battle Mystery's Saturday morning pond-hockey players in a glitzy promo match. Since all life in Mystery is either hockey or waiting for hockey, the idea of a sleek, sinister, morally bankrupt professional team taking on the local boys rattles all 633 cages in town. Azaria and his overblown bluster are supposed to rub us like hair gel: slick, alien and not from Mystery. Unfortunately, none of us come from Mystery either. Consequently, the Big Apple doesn't look so bad.

At least at the beginning. After a witnessing several heartstring-yanking devices -- hero John Biebe (Russell Crowe) slapping pucks in the moonlight, young Birdie Burns (Scott Grimes) struggling with his dad's criticism, town lawyer and lovable fat guy Bailey Pruitt (Maury Chaykin) waxing on about Mystery values -- there are a few moments when we just can't wait for the little folk to stick it to those evil city slickers. These moments, of course, tap our bottomless obeisance for the underdog who won't quit.

But some time into the movie, we realize that the moments themselves won't quit. The film plays like highlight footage. There's no buildup, just emotional peak after emotional peak. Someone's devastated, someone's euphoric, someone's dying, someone's born again. We're spent. Then bored.

Maybe someone in charge anticipated this reaction and tried to compensate with star power. Burt Reynolds puts on an expensive overcoat and presides as town statesman and county Cassandra. ("Two things this town has always had," he says in one speech, "its dreams and its illusions. I suggest we cling to both.") Russell Crowe leads the Mystery team as its oldest veteran, then gets benched for being too old, then makes it back to the ice because he's the oldest veteran. (He was good in "L.A. Confidential" where he was tough with a soft side; here he tries soft with a tough side, or soft with an ice-skating side.) And Mary McCormack (as Biebe's wife) and Azaria are both good -- no surprise, despite their flat characters.

Here's what Cinderella movies have learned since "Breaking Away," Peter Yates' 1979 classic about a bike race: the word "Cinderella." "It's a Cinderella story," the announcer character huffs during the big game, as though acknowledging the familiarity of the genre will somehow lift us out of it. Similarly, Comedy Central regular Beth Littleford spouts ridiculous underdog clichis as an inane TV reporter covering the human interest angle. We're supposed to laugh because her clichis are so overbearing, but the movie doesn't have the self-consciousness to distinguish the real story from her vapid encapsulation of it.

Like all jocks, "Mystery" wants to be remembered for something more than its athletic ability. The characters talk like motivational speakers, and they talk a lot. In a tireless rotation, the judge, the hockey veteran, the veteran's wife, the mayor, the lawyer and the outcast all hasten, horn music in tow, to stamp history with stirring monologues. They inspire us to not give up, to follow our hearts, to believe in ourselves and, most of all, to cheer for Alaska. In one of the countless subplots, we even get an anti-corporate speech. A ruthless supermarket chain, it seems, thought it could set up shop in mom-and-pop Mystery. (This is a bizarre fascination for Roach, whose "Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me" included a similar ribbing of Starbucks. Are we to believe his movies are fighting the power?)

The profusion of speeches, of course, ends up turning each into a whisper. Like much in "Mystery, Alaska," less would have been more. And less would have given the film room to get a better idea of itself. In the end, Roach never really settles on which deep point to make about Mystery: "We're not just a hockey town dammit"; or, "Hey, we're just a little hockey town." Lucky for the audience, we're not too worried about it -- we've got those slick New York Rangers to admire.

By Chris Colin

Chris Colin is the author most recently of "Blindsight," published by the Atavist.

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