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Mystery, Alaska: In Print

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Mystery, Alaska is one of those feel-good sports movies that follow the tried-and-true formula of pitting a big-time Goliath against a plucky David who, if nothing else, has a good chance of winning a moral victory.

Somewhat reminiscent of Cool Runnings, in which a Jamaican bobsled team had to prove its worth in outback Canada, this one is about the oddball but lovable small-townfolk of fictional Mystery, Alaska, whose main reason for living is their love for ice hockey.

When they are given the opportunity to play the New York Rangers in an exhibition match on their own home territory, the good folk hold a town meeting to debate their chances.

The local magistrate (Burt Reynolds), who exudes the air of Judge Dredd, cautions them that they could lose the two things they have always had in Mystery - "our dignity and our illusions." This is a once-only chance, however, to show what they are really made of, and the villagers accept the challenge.

The main part of the film consists of the town's preparation for the big event, with the usual setbacks, humorous moments and personal problems. There are court scenes, sex scenes, a naked man skating across the frozen pond, and a host of two-dimensional characters. In fact, Russell Crowe, as the sheriff who fears he is losing the love of his wife, is one of the few cast members who gets a chance to really act.

Mystery, Alaska was first shown in the United States last year at the beginning of the National Hockey League season, but because Kiwis are not so mad about the sport, its release here was delayed as a follow-up to The Insider, which also stars Crowe.

The court scenes, and the inclusion of a wide variety of subplots, are evidence that the screenplay is the work of writer-producer David E. Kelley, the creator of television's outstanding Ally McBeal and The Practice. Working within a limited two-hour timeframe, however, Kelley never gets the chance to fully develop his characters or the oddball situations that he is so good at.

For those seeking an evening's unchallenging entertainment, Mystery, Alaska is just the ticket. As can be expected in a Disney movie, there aren't even any bad guys.

c.1999 Fort Worth Star-Telegram

Appropriately enough, no movie plays by the rules quite like a sports movie. It’s a game in which you have to have one or more of the following: a rag-tag group of underdogs; a grizzled vet who’s getting too old for the game; a young hotshot to replace the vet; an irascible coach; an inspirational speech or two; and, of course, The Big Game.

The secret, as in real sports, is how well you play the game using those rules. “Mystery, Alaska,” which includes all of these ingredients, pulls off what could be called a stunning upset: It triumphs over its own cliches, formula and manipulation to become thoroughly entertaining.

There’s no mystery about the town of Mystery; it’s hockey-mad. Every Saturday, Mystery’s team takes on other area teams in four-man pond-hockey matchups. The Mystery men are so good that Sports Illustrated does a feature on them, which leads a former resident (Hank Azaria) to arrange a publicity stunt: a game against the New York Rangers. Mystery’s residents have a great deal of small-town pride and insularity, but despite fears that the game will turn the town into a joke, they accept the Rangers game. The Rangers are a little more reluctant.

The best thing you can say about “Mystery’s” screenplay, which was co-written by TV whiz David E. Kelley, is that it doesn’t feel like a Kelley script. Nothing against Kelley; his writing for “The Practice” is arguably the finest on television, and although his “Ally McBeal” is mind-bogglingly erratic, you can count on it to make at least one or two cogent observations per show. And unlike Kelley’s summer entry, the forced horror comedy “Lake Placid, Mystery” doesn’t condescend to its genre — in fact, it celebrates its David-vs.-Goliath conventions as few sports movies have since the original “Rocky.”

Director Jay Roach takes an unobtrusive approach, placing his trust in his actors and his writers, and stepping up when he’s most needed. “Mystery’s” affable cast includes Russell Crowe as the aging player, who’s also threatened when his wife’s former boyfriend (Azaria) returns to town. Mary McCormack, as Crowe’s wife, gives a glowing performance, and is blessed with what may be the best female character the supposedly female-friendly Kelley has ever written.

Burt Reynolds is stolid as the town’s dignified judge; Colm Meaney, who has a silent moment that’s some of the best acting you’ll see all year, is the mayor and team owner; Lolita Davidovich is touching as his younger, neglected wife; Maury Chaykin is amusing as that Kelley specialty, an eccentric lawyer; and Ron Eldard is goofily charming as the team’s ladies’ man.

It’s hard to say just why “Mystery” works so well with ingredients that can, and have, flopped when used elsewhere. Maybe it’s just a matter of fielding the right team and playing the game well. No doubt some people will be able to resist its charms, but that’s their loss. Even when “Mystery” trips up with occasional underwritten moments, it’s still a movie to root for.

c.1999 San Francisco Examiner

Let’s see a show of hands of those who think the Mystery hockey team, all pluck and humble and lucky in their exhibition showdown against a top team from the National Hockey League, will give the New York Rangers what for. Uh-huh.

Now let’s see a show of hands of those who think the movie “Mystery, Alaska” will be pretty realistic, with the Rangers skating circles around the ragtag collection of skating pumpkins and emotional wombats that make up the amateur team from Mystery.

OK. Well, looks like you’re going to have to go see the movie after all. “Mystery, Alaska” is still predictable. It’s just not as predictable as the rest of its kind. It takes you down to the last goal without tipping off which way the whole thing’s going to go.

For a movie like this, that’s about all you can ask for. Make no mistake. “Mystery, Alaska” is in the same mold as “Bad News Bears” and “Hoosiers” and “Slapshot” — all those Underdog Uber Alles movies that Hollywood churns out. It’s a product of the largely vanilla thinking of David E. Kelley (“Ally McBeal,” “The Practice,” “Picket Fences”) and Jay Roach, director of the Austin Power blockbusters, but it has its moments.

Russell Crowe, the New Zealand native who played the hard-faced detective in “L.A. Confidential,” is making a pretty good living playing Americans. He does it again, quite well, in “Mystery.” As town sheriff and captain of the hockey team, Crowe has the look, sound and moves of a rolling-toward-middle- age American man.

Colm Meany (the dad in “The Commitments”) is solid. So are Mary McCormack as Crowe’s wife and Lolita Davidovitch as Meaney’s wife. Ron Eldard is perfect as the team’s sleazy womanizer, and the other players do themselves proud — notably newcomers Ryan Northcott as a high school standout and Kevin Durand as Tree Lane.

Burt Reynolds holds his own, although at this stage of his career he can’t play anything but Burt Reynolds, and Rachel Wilson — Northcott’s girlfriend — has a face and manner that keep you looking and looking. That’s good because the cliched nature of the small-town doings in Mystery, population 600, get pretty dreary.

It’s kind of a snowbound Peyton Place, with husbands forgiving wives and wives forgiving husbands every time you turn around. Add the outback smugness of these people, the everyday sameness of themselves, and this movie would be pretty close to unwatchable if the cast weren’t as good as it is.

The plot is paper thin. As a publicity stunt, the New York Rangers decide to play the team from Mystery after a writer native to the town features it in Sports Illustrated. The rest of the movie is about whether the team can — gosh, do you think? — really beat an NHL squad. It’s a credit to the actors, director and writers that “Mystery” holds your attention with nothing more than that to work with.

The atmosphere has something to do with it. Filmed near Canmore, Alberta, “Mystery” has the right air of cold and isolation. (You want to ask yourself, though, why the filmmakers didn’t put the town in Canada in the first place, since it’s filmed in Canada and a Canadian town is a lot more likely to think of itself as a hockey town than an American one.)

“Mystery” has some tears when they’re called for, an R rating because youngsters talk dirty, plus a little Mike Myers and Little Richard when things get too sticky. And it’s not quite as predictable as you would think.

Mystery, Alaska A puckish comedy just meets its goal
By Steve Murray (10/1/99)
c. 1999 Cox News Service

There’s not much mystery to “Mystery, Alaska,” a by-the-numbers mixture of “Northern Exposure,” “The Mighty Ducks” and any small-town comedy-drama about sexual intrigue.

TV whiz David E. Kelley (“Ally McBeal,” “The Practice,” etc., etc.) co-produced and co-wrote the flick. While it lacks the tin-eared dialogue of his dumb crocodile-attack movie, “Lake Placid,” “Alaska” is a soggy series of bite-size vignettes and spoon-fed emotions, suitable for commercial breaks — except for the addition of raunchy humor and profanity to justify the big-screen treatment.

For all that, it’s still pretty watchable. But you know you’re in the land of pandering when a movie’s first line includes a big four-letter word spouted by an adorable tyke to get an easy laugh.

The kid belongs to John Biebe (Russell Crowe), the sheriff of tiny, snowy Mystery (a made-up locale, created for the film in Alberta, Canada). He’s a team member of the revered Saturday Game. That’s the tiny town’s main event, a weekly hockey demonstration of speed and strength on an iced-over pond. When a former local named Danner (Hank Azaria) writes about the team in Sports Illustrated, the publicity snowballs (ha-ha) into the chance to play a promotional match against the New York Rangers of the National Hockey League.

That is, if the Mysteriosans are willing to take on the pros, at the risk of their pride. The stern former coach, Judge Burns (Burt Reynolds), warns the locals to shirk the limelight and cling to “our dignity and our illusions.” But we know it’s only a matter of time before these snowbound Davids will do their best to beat the Gotham Goliaths, not with slings but with hockey sticks.

During this holding pattern until the Big Game, the screen fills up with your usual lovable small-town eccentrics, including horndog Skank (Ron Eldard), who’s having an affair with Mary Jane (Lolita Davidovich), who happens to be married to the mayor (Colm Meaney). Meanwhile, Danner gets all flirty-eyed with John’s wife, Donna (Mary McCormack). The movie piles on jokes about teenage sex in snowplows, jokes about a drunken driver on a Zamboni, condom jokes, shovel-upside-the-head jokes and puck-to-the-crotch jokes.

One character has a heart attack, to stir up cheap sentiment, and you can bet that some old friend will leave a hockey puck on his grave as a show of love.

When Crowe, who is fine in a brooding, low-key role, has to deliver the eulogy at the dead man’s funeral, he rallies the crowd with the assertion, “We’re a hockey town.” You might find yourself wondering, well, what the heck else could it be, since ice is the burg’s only abundant commodity?

On the plus side, “Mystery, Alaska” has a generous spirit. It loves its cliches and stick figures so much that you almost do too. It’s a safe date movie, because you don’t have to pay attention to know exactly where it’s headed.

It helps that the strong cast includes the likes of Maury Chaikin as the local lawyer, Michael McKean as a corporate slimeball and Judith Ivey as Reynolds’ wife (she has a priceless comic bit when trying to act calm while her teenage daughter blurts out details of her budding sex life).

Oh, and did I mention that Little Richard shows up, and so does Mike Myers as a sportscaster, maybe as a favor to director Jay Roach, who helmed both “Austin Powers” flicks?

“Mystery, Alaska” Grade: C+
The verdict: A by-the-numbers but fairly pleasant David-vs.-Goliath comedy, on ice.
Steve Murray writes for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

By JAY CARR (1/10/99)
c.1999 The Boston Globe

David E. Kelley keeps trying to move from TV success into film success, and “Mystery, Alaska” shows that he’s getting there. Still, Kelley’s new film is more than a little reminiscent of “Picket Fences,” as it weaves a tapestry of small-town Alaskans who take their hockey very seriously and their women not seriously enough. The comedy arises from a collision between their purity and eccentricities and a voracious media culture that discovers them via a Sports Illustrated article that balloons into a network TV special built around an exhibition game with the New York Rangers.

While the game pumps up the individual and collective sense of self-esteem, it clearly confirms the locals’ suspicion of being gobbled up by corporate bigness. It’s a theme that dwindles to nothing in an errant plot strand involving a superstore coming to town and crowding out the homegrown merchants of the Alaskan town called (mysteriously, since it never is explained) Mystery. Before the players can blink, in come the construction crews, bordering their pond with boards to serve as display space for ads, followed by TV types who cavalierly nickname the team the Eskimos. In vain do the locals explain that there are few Native Americans in town, much less on the team, and that they prefer to be called Inuit. The point is made that the media blitz isn’t interested in reporting what’s there, but in shoehorning what’s there into the media’s formats and formulas. In short, it’s an argument for authentic experience as opposed to canned prefab experience. But, ironically, the film stubs its toe on that very dichotomy. It has a homegrown look and texture, but what works for a one-hour TV show doesn’t necessarily work for a two-hour movie, even with enlivening cameos from Little Richard as the pregame anthem singer and Michael Myers as a TV sports color guy.

When the hockey game finally unfolds, it grabs you despite its conventional structuring and despite the fact that it’s hard to think of the Rangers as the bad guys of the NHL, much less of a movie. Still, the game, with the Mystery players in their retro jerseys suggesting the old Monteral Maroons, is the one thing that somehow skates past an obvious Hollywood ending in what otherwise seems like a screenful of too-obvious string-pulling, with rigged emotional responses that undercut a few really good performances and leave other performers stranded.

Russell Crowe does a good job as the film’s emotional center, a town sheriff and hard-working family man facing up to the fact that at 34 he’s getting too old for the Saturday game of choose-up-sides that amounts to the town’s ritual of tribal approval and male bonding. The film makes the dubious point that the guys who didn’t qualify — Hank Azaria’s local guy who left town to become the media tout whose return amounts to delayed self-vindication and Burt Reynolds’s stuffy and disapproving local judge taking his own youthful shortcomings out on his hockey-minded son — are stunted human beings.

But “Mystery, Alaska” is too scattershot to really explore these ideas, going broad when it should be going deep and never supplying enough emotional faceting. Contrivance repeatedly overwhelms character, wasting the likes of Colm Meaney as a clueless mayor and Ron Eldard as a sleep-around whose philandering is based on the town’s neglect of its women. Given this, the women are relegated to perfunctory contributions (I’d like to have seen more of Mary McCormack’s quietly heroic wife and mother), while Crowe, Reynolds, and Azaria are underutilized.

Even though Crowe is the moral and emotional anchor of the team, it individually and collectively isn’t a strong enough presence when it should be the film’s real center, although individual performances — Kevin Durand’s gentle bull, for instance — are flavorful and simpatico. Too many wispy plot strands, in short, and too little everything else is the story here. “Mystery, Alaska” stakes out some promising territory, and Kelley is obviously aware that to make the move from TV to films he must fill his scripts with greater depth and density. But he’s not there yet.

Mystery, Alaska`Mystery, Alaska' Is Puckish Fun Kelley's hockey thriller looks at small-town life
Peter Stack, Chronicle Staff Critic (October 1, 1999)
©1999 San Francisco Chronicle

``Mystery, Alaska'' is a raucous come-from-nowhere sports movie that scores big as a study of small-town life where characters collide and are forced to get along for the good of the community.

It's an action-packed hockey thriller edited with dizzying rat- a-tats of quick cuts that put the violent arena atmosphere in the viewer's face. The inferiority complex of a small town and heaps of community bonding interplay wonderfully in this film, co-written and produced by David E. Kelley of television's ``The Practice'' and ``Ally McBeal,'' and directed by Jay Roach of ``Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me.'' It was filmed in Alberta, Canada.

Energy and quirky comedy, some of it sexual and a lot of it rough and tumble, keep the story clicking, though some viewers may blush.

Mystery, Alaska, is a town of 633 people. Besides fighting summer mosquitoes and winter cold, the community rallies around one thing -- the thrill of ice hockey. To this end, the town has mustered an amazing team of hotshot locals whose prowess on the town pond holds everyone in thrall.

When a smooth promoter and former resident proposes an exhibition game between Mystery's ragtag squad and the imperious professional New York Rangers, the town almost comes unglued. It's as if civilization suddenly pounced on the middle of nowhere and gave it the stamp of approval. But is the loss of innocence via national media attention a natural byproduct?

Actually, nobody seems very innocent in Mystery. Russell Crowe, as the husky local sheriff and veteran of the pond team, has heard and seen it all. But he almost loses it when the town's hockey committee, led by the mayor (Colm Meaney), asks him to step aside and be the coach, so that a younger player can compete in the big game.

To make matters worse, the sheriff's wife, Donna (Mary McCormack), is getting the big flirt from the promoter (Hank Azaria), her Mystery High School boyfriend before he departed to become a big- time Manhattan-based sportswriter.

The town is loaded with memorable characters, each with a history -- a stuffy judge (Burt Reynolds); the mayor's wildly unfaithful wife (Lolita Davidovich), who is having an affair with one of the hockey team's hottest players (Ron Eldard); an overweight lawyer (Maury Chaykin) who helps coach; the judge's thoughtful wife (Judith Ivey); and a gang of rollicking players (Scott Grimes, Adam Beach, Ryan Northcott, Kevin Durand and Brent Stait).
©1999 San Francisco Chronicle

’Mystery’ Quacks Like a Disney Flick
By Desson Howe
(c) 1999, The Washington Post

Walt Disney movies can make a cheery triumph of anything — even cannibalism. In the studio’s 1993 movie “Alive,” based on the real-life tragedy of 1972, a plane carrying 45 passengers from Uruguay to Chile crashes in the frozen Andes Mountains. With little food, the survivors are ultimately forced to consume the flesh of their dead (and snow-preserved) fellow passengers. But the creators of “Dumbo” turn the film into an uplifting, rah-rah paean to the human spirit. They were given up for dead, they ate their own and they were triumphant! The survivors practically raise fists in the air, “Rocky”-style, because they, well, chomped their fellow man and stayed alive.

“Mystery, Alaska,” in which a hockey team from the eponymous small town faces the New York Rangers on their frozen home pond, may not have cannibalism. But the cheering — and its concomitant happy ending — continues apace.

The studio has touted the movie, co-written by “Ally McBeal” creator David E. Kelley, as a character-driven, adult-themed Disney event. It’s a sort of adult “The Mighty Ducks” that stretches and strains in the direction of “The Last Picture Show,” but falls flat on the ice.

Despite an array of salty, small-town archetypes who indulge in extramarital affairs, drinking binges, public fights and choice obscenities, these characters — including Russell Crowe, Hank Azaria, Colm Meaney and Lolita Davidovich — never stray from Disney’s formulaic rink.

Their struggles, trials and tribulations are mere preludes to an inevitable orgy of affirmation. We know the story will conclude with a crescendo of frozen-north hallelujahs. Cheering is endemic to Disney. They can’t help themselves.

To enjoy this movie, I’d venture to say, you’d have to like “The Mighty Ducks” far more than you ever did “The Last Picture Show.” Which would almost certainly empower you to stand up and — you know.
MYSTERY, ALASKA (R, 119 minutes) contains sexual situations, nudity, obscenities and cheering.

c.1999 N.Y. Times News Service

When it comes to capturing the bone-crunching, high-velocity world of sports, Hollywood has a surprisingly spotty record, often preferring to present the game as metaphor (“Field of Dreams”) instead of diving into the bruising reality of the arena. But “Mystery, Alaska,” an upbeat meat-and-potatoes movie that is a striking change in directorial style for Jay Roach, who oversaw the garish Austin Powers romps, conveys some of the thrill and ferocity of ice hockey while skillfully folding together multiple personal dramas.

Produced by David E. Kelley, the king of television drama (“L.A. Law,” “The Practice,” “Ally McBeal”), who wrote the screenplay with Sean O’Byrne, the movie is clearly a project dear to Kelley’s heart. Twenty years ago, he was captain of Princeton’s hockey team, and the screenplay includes enough technical jargon to demonstrate an insider’s knowledge of the sport without clogging up the narrative.

“Mystery, Alaska” uses sport to explore the hardy psyche of a remote Alaskan town that lives and breathes hockey and whose pride and joy is its legendary pond hockey team. The movie has the look and feel of an unusually well-constructed television drama in which a dozen sharply drawn characters interact in ways that are fairly predictable without seeming too snugly formulaic. You can also feel the chill; the climactic game takes place in minus-10-degree weather. In an amusing satirical touch, Little Richard (of all people) opens the event with a rendition of the national anthem that is so slow that some of the waiting players worry that their bones will begin to freeze.

What sparks the drama is the return to Mystery of Charles Danner (Hank Azaria), a native son who forsook his hometown for New York City to become a television producer. Danner has come up with a promotional scheme to pit the locals against the New York Rangers in a nationally televised exhibition game to be broadcast live from Mystery. The show would be an economic boon to the town. Without actually demonizing Danner, the movie presents him as a shifty city slicker and the high-powered network personnel who descend on Mystery as blase media gypsies. One dreadful pat, and inaccurate, marketing pitch proposed is to dub the Mystery team Eskimos on Ice.

The movie’s moral and emotional grounding wire is Mystery’s sheriff, John Biebe (Russell Crowe), a 13-year veteran of the team and local sports hero who is devastated to learn that he is being retired from the first string to make room for Stevie Weeks (Ryan Northcott), a naive eager beaver only half his age. Biebe is a terrific role for Crowe, whose Rock of Gibraltar machismo anchors the film in decent common-sense values. Biebe’s demotion sends a shock through the town and through his marriage to Donna (Mary McCormack), who years ago dated Danner but chose to marry Biebe and live a very circumscribed life.

Other colorful locals include the town’s mayor, Scott Pitcher (Colm Meaney); Skank Marden (Ron Eldard), the team’s resident stud who blithely cuckolds Pitcher; the local judge, Walter Burns (Burt Reynolds); his wife, Joanne (Judith Ivey); their hockey-playing son, Birdie (Scott Grimes), and their teen-age daughter, Marla (Rachel Wilson). Finally there is Bailey Pruitt (Maury Chaykin), the blustering hyper-emotional lawyer who travels all the way to New York to argue the team’s case when the game is in danger of being canceled because of union problems.

What gives zest to a story that builds to a predictable David and Goliath confrontation on a pond (in which a Coca-Cola logo has been imprinted beneath the surface of the ice) is a screenplay that locates the characters’ idiosyncrasies and a calm directorial style that respects their dignity even when they’re under extreme stress. Where most films about small towns caught up in sports mania take a patronizing view of grown-ups living vicariously through their athletic children, “Mystery, Alaska” never questions the community’s values. Without fawning over the players, the movie presents them as rugged, earthy embodiments of a healthy pioneer spirit that enables communities like Mystery to stay closely knit and proud.

‘Mystery, Alaska’ Too Thin Off the Ice (Hollywood)
By Kenneth Turan
(c) 1999, Los Angeles Times

HOLLYWOOD — “Mystery, Alaska” is a film that believes, in the words of hockey player and ladies’ man Skank Marden, that skating and fornicating are the most fun you can have in the winter.” While that may or may not be accurate in life, on screen it’s half true at best.

For while the hockey scenes in this Rocky on Ice” fable are enjoyable, attempts to expand the film’s horizons to include both juvenile sexual humor and quasi-serious examinations of troubled relationships come off as stiff as a frozen flounder. Dozing off during the exposition and waking up for the on-ice action is definitely the way to go.

Co-written (with Princeton hockey teammate Sean O’Byrne) and co-produced by David E. Kelley, the creator of Ally McBeal” and The Practice,” Mystery” is set in that mythical Northern Exposurish Alaska hamlet, population 633.

While it’s unclear what most people do for a living in Mystery, hockey is the place’s number one obsession, a passion that focuses on a local phenomenon called the Saturday game. Once a week during the winter, the best players in town — so chosen by a committee of Mystery’s leading citizens — get together and play against each other on a frozen pond for love of the game and the edification of the local citizenry. The team’s hardiest veteran is Sheriff John Biebe (Russell Crowe), a scrappy playmaker who’s been in the Saturday game for a record 13 years.

The film opens at a point when Mystery’s game is about to get some national exposure. Charles Danner (Hank Azaria), a local boy who never made a team for the Saturday game and left Mystery for a writing career in New York, has gotten a story on the town’s weekly ritual into Sports Illustrated. More than that, the owners of the New York Rangers were intrigued enough by the piece to consider a good-for-publicity exhibition game in Mystery, pitting the NHL powerhouse against the local legends. It’ll be good for the economy,” one resident says, while another responds, what economy?”

When Mystery” sticks to ice-related doings, like the possibility that the sheriff might be bumped from the squad, it rarely loses its footing. The team’s players, even if they are familiar types like sex machine Skank (Ron Eldard), hot young prospect Stevie Weeks (Ryan Northcott), and Tree Lane (Kevin Durand), the big guy who doesn’t know his own strength, are amusing en masse, and David vs. Goliath sports events have an undeniable heartwarming appeal.

Though a comic cameo by Mike Myers as a hockey legend turned TV commentator is highly effective, it is Australian Crowe, a previous non-skater, who gives the film’s standout performance. Almost unrecognizable from his breakthrough in L.A. Confidential,” Crowe is one of those blessed leading men who can convincingly disappear inside a variety of roles.

It’s unfortunate that Mystery, Alaska” can’t stick to hockey, because the other things on its mind are best forgotten. Examining local marriages, like that of mayor Scott Pitcher (Colm Meaney) and his straying Mary Jane (Lolita Davidovich) or the sheriff and wife Donna (Mary McCormack), who was Charles Danner’s girlfriend in 12th grade, couldn’t be a duller exercise. In fact, its notable that director Jay Roach (best known for his two Austin Powers films) can get the actors to play this pro forma material without flinching.

Mystery, Alaska’s” other interest is even more tiresome. Echoing Kelly’s naughty boy tendencies in Lake Placid,” which had Betty White cursing like a stevedore, this film takes the most childish delight in comic profanity and inappropriate remarks coming out of youthful mouths. It sounds like a minor tendency, but it’s so overly cute it makes you want to gag.

Coming after the even more ill-starred Lake Placid,” Mystery, Alaska” increases the impression that writer-producer Kelley can’t be bothered to give big-screen projects his full attention. If he released material this halfheartedly on television, there would be a lot fewer Emmys for him to call his own.
(MPAA rating: R, for language and sexuality. Los Angeles Times guidelines: one mild sexual scene and childish cursing.)

‘Mystery, Alaska'
c.1999 Los Angeles Daily News

LOS ANGELES — Entertainment cottage industry David E. Kelley deserves some serious time in the penalty box for his latest misstep, “Mystery, Alaska.” Frighteningly similar in tone to Kevin Costner’s godawful baseball yawner, “For Love of the Game,” “Mystery” will do nothing to curb Americans’ apathy toward hockey. It’s as slow-moving as a Zamboni machine, wooden as a hockey stick and as predictable as a goal scored on an open net.

“Mystery” is hampered most severely by its obviousness. After the film introduces its numerous characters and superficial subplots in the opening half-hour, there is absolutely no intrigue as to how the subsequent events will unfold. The only question is: How long will it take? The movie’s excruciating two-hour length somehow feels an hour longer, compounding the boredom it inflicts on its audience by veering off in so many uninteresting directions.

Set in the fictional titular town (but filmed in the Alberta Rockies), “Mystery, Alaska” recounts the hopes and dreams of an amateur pond hockey team that aspires to greatness. After a Sports Illustrated article chronicles their hard-skating exploits, opportunity comes knocking in the form of an exhibition game against the NHL’s New York Rangers.

Can these big-hearted skaters — who regard hockey as more of a religion than a sport — measure up to the professional big boys? Will the locals be seduced by the sudden media attention? Will a Wal-Mart-like superstore be allowed to open in the town? Will the mayor forgive his adulterous wife? Will the Rangers win a grievance filed on their behalf by the NHL Players Union and avoid the trip to Mystery altogether? Will a man named Tree finally learn to stand tall?

Answers to these and a dozen other tedious questions will be revealed. But you must be patient, because the script (written by Kelley and Sean O’Byrne) discards plot developments almost as quickly as it establishes them, taking an almost perverse pleasure in sabotaging dramatic momentum.

The vast ensemble (Russell Crowe, Burt Reynolds and Hank Azaria are among the victims) fares horribly under the constraints of the story and the pedestrian direction from Jay Roach (“Austin Powers”). The filmmakers telegraph every moment, leaving no dramatic ploy unturned. Characters don’t talk as much as deliver speeches filled with sports-movie platitudes that would make the Gipper blush.

“Mystery” fails so spectacularly on a dramatic level that it seems an afterthought to find fault with its premise. But purists will cringe at the implausibility of the idea that a team of pond players could somehow learn NHL-style hockey in 32 days and skate competitively against a professional team — even if that squad is the New York Rangers.

The game action itself is OK. But by the time the puck drops, this formulaic dud has committed so many major penalties that the audience’s rooting interest lies squarely with the Rangers. (If this movie was made a decade earlier, the Mystery boys would be playing the Russians.)

One can only hope that writer-producer Kelley will learn a lesson from the failure of “Mystery” and this summer’s underwhelming “Lake Placid” and invest a little more time in his next feature. Audiences can have long memories when they don’t have the option of switching the channel.

By LOU LUMENICK (10/1/99)

'MYSTERY, Alaska," which tries to cross "Slap Shot" with "Northern Exposure," doesn't quite achieve its goal, but this overgrown little movie does offer solid laughs, engaging performances and a captivating setting. That would be the remote little village of the title, where the residents have two main interests.

"I play hockey and fornicate," explains one character, "because they're the two most fun things to do in cold weather." When they aren't hopping into one others' beds, the good folk of Mystery are obsessing about their Saturday hockey game on an ice pond, a decades-long tradition. But the purity of that experience is challenged when a former-resident-turned-sportswriter (a wonderfully smarmy Hank Azaria) returns with a stunning offer. He wants the Mystery men, whose skills he's hyped in a magazine article, to play the New York Rangers in Alaska as a televised stunt. The town judge and resident hockey expert (Burt Reynolds in foxy-grandpa mode) warns the pond players they haven't a prayer against professionals and he refuses, at least at first, to coach the team.

But civic pride wins out, and the mayor (Colm Meaney) pressures the sheriff (Russell Crowe) to take on the job - though he just cut the 34-year-old sheriff from the squad after 13 seasons to make room for a high-school phenom (Ryan Northcott). To make things worse, the sportswriter is flirting with his ex-sweetheart, the sheriff's wife (Mary McCormack). Crowe also has to arrest the team's star player, a grocery clerk (Michael Buie), for shooting a representative of a Wal-Mart-style chain (Michael McKean) in the foot. And the mayor's wife (Lolita Davidovich) is fooling around with yet another player (Ron Eldard).

You practically need a scorecard to keep track of the players in this amiable ensemble piece, which springs from the fevered brains of TV uber-producer David E. Kelley ("The Practice," "Ally McBeal" and this summer's unfortunate big-screen misfire "Lake Placid") and Sean O'Byrne, a writer on Kelley's fondly remembered "Picket Fences." Indeed, "Mystery, Alaska" throws in so many quirky subplots, it often feels like a very long (127 minutes) TV episode, with lots of obscenity and sexual activity added. But it has a terrific cast (including Judith Ivey as Reynolds' wife, and priceless cameos by Mike Myers as a sportscaster and Little Richard as himself). Crowe ("L.A. Confidential") is wonderful as the hang-dog lawman who watches helplessly as the town slides into giddy self-delusion. Maury Chaykin is funny and touching as the town lawyer, who goes to New York to plead Mystery's case in court when the Ranger players balk at the Alaska junket.

Director Jay Roach (who helmed the two Austin Powers movies) gets maximum laughs of out the material, though his staging of the climactic game is sometimes a mite confusing. (No, the Rangers don't play themselves, and it's far from "Hoosiers" on skates).

"Mystery, Alaska" is not a great movie, but it's consistently entertaining and almost worth seeing just for the beautifully photographed setting, a town the filmmakers created from scratch at the base of a mountain in Alberta, Canada. (Thanks to Lulu)

‘Mystery’ mix of sex, hugs and bump-and-roll
By Hap Erstein
c.1999 Cox News Service

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — As we learn in “Mystery, Alaska,” the two most enjoyable things to do in cold weather are play hockey and fornicate. Director Jay Roach’s quirky little movie is more about the former than the latter, but is a pleasant enough couple of hours nevertheless.

More so than Roach, the force behind this sports fable is co-writer/producer David E. Kelley, the prolific creator of a handful of current television comic-dramas as well as the overtly oddball former series, “Picket Fences.” “Mystery, Alaska” seems to answer a question you probably never posed: What do you get when you cross a “Picket Fences” episode with one from “Northern Exposure”?

It’s small-town life salted with peculiar, but endearing characters, a bit of romantic longing, some time spent in courtrooms, a little pseudo-suspense and lots of ice and snow. There is enough story here even if you have no interest in hockey, and more than sufficient if you do.

For Mystery is a hockey-crazy hamlet, with its citizens obsessed with ”the Saturday game,” a longstanding local pick-up game manned by the town sheriff, grocer, delivery boy and the like. One’s social standing and likelihood of getting lucky, sexually speaking, revolve around the game.

It looks like the entire town has gotten lucky when a former Mysterian writes about the team in Sports Illustrated, boasting that the squad rivals the best in the National Hockey League on pure skating ability. Improbably — but go with it — the pro league sees the promotional potential of such a matchup and orders the New York Rangers to play an exhibition game against these pond hockey amateurs.

Naturally, everyone is thrilled, except for Judge Walter Burns (Burt Reynolds, with a great head of snow white toupee and a Sean Connery beard). A college player with residual bitterness that he never made the Saturday team, Burns warns the town to keep its dignity and its illusions by passing on the Rangers’ challenge. Burns is also busy resenting his hockey-playing son and handling his precocious daughter, who is eager to go to bed — or, at least, to van — with her boyfriend Stevie.

Stevie has just replaced Sheriff Biebe (Russell Crowe) on the team after 13 years, a blow which sends Biebe into an early midlife mope. Nor is his mood helped by the airlifted arrival of the SI writer (Hank Azaria), who happens to be his wife’s high school sweetheart.

Then there’s the team stud, who is doing more than rubbing noses with the mayor’s wife. And the town bumpkin lawyer (Maury Chaykin, in the Fyvush Finkel role), who defends a local for shooting a sales rep from the dreaded Price World and later goes head-to-head with New York city slicker attorneys when the big game is threatened with a legal challenge.

Director Roach handles all of this with a surprisingly light touch, far better than you might expect from viewing his two claims to fame, the “Austin Powers” yukfests. Surely he is the reason that Mike Myers shows up in a fun cameo as a fickle TV sportscaster. Myers is topped, however, by a brief appearance from Little Richard as the celebrity National Anthem singer who helps the Mystery team with his tempo.

The climactic hockey game is the least interesting part of “Mystery, Alaska,” but by then you are likely to be invested enough in the players to care a little. Who knows, maybe there’s a director’s cut for those who would rather see more of the town’s other prime activity.
(New York Times News Service)

By Marcus Baram and Marc S. Malkin (Tribune Media Services)

The cast of “Mystery, Alaska” may be regretting some of the pranks they pulled on the snowy set in Canada. Co-stars Mary McCormack and Ron Eldard decided to have some fun with the crew one day by pretending to have an affair. “I told all the hairdressers and makeup people that Ron and I were up to something behind (his girlfriend) Julianna Margulies’ back,” McCormack told us at the film’s premiere party at Serena’s on Tuesday night. “But it was terrible, because everyone started giving me dirty looks. And since I’m good friends with Julianna, some of the crew were really offended,” she says. “Not the best idea for a prank.”

Jay Roach, Man of Mystery
By JOSHUA MOONEY (Entertainment News Wire)

NEW YORK When director Jay Roach and his friend, comedian Mike Myers, set out to do a spoof of spy films a few years back, they weren't sure anyone would notice. Myers' creation, a secret-agent character from the 1960s, was simply too esoteric (and flat-out bizarre) to guarantee a sure-fire hit. "We sensed that the film might have just a small audience," Roach says now. That was their one significant miscalculation, because "Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery," became a comedy phenomenon. And its sequel, "Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me," also directed by Roach, will end up as one of the biggest money-makers of the year.

Audiences familiar with Roach's work with Myers might be surprised by his latest film, "Mystery, Alaska." Despite the title, the film sports no international men of mystery. Almost the opposite, in fact. It's a low-key comedy-drama set in a small town in Alaska that focuses on the isolated community's love of ice hockey.

In Mystery, the game of hockey defines you, and all able-bodied men live to star in the weekly intramural games. Unlike the no-holds-barred, over-the-top style of "Austin Powers," "Mystery" is a film built on subtleties and is a careful mix of several different styles. It's a sports film, a romantic drama, a comedy about small-town ways, as well as an earnest celebration of small-town values.

Most films that try to move in so many different directions at once end up an unfocused clash of styles and tones. But "Mystery" has the advantage of being the brainchild of David E. Kelley, perhaps the most successful television creator of the '90s. Kelley broke new TV ground with shows like "Picket Fences," "The Practice" and "Ally McBeal." He brings his unique sensibility to the script of "Mystery, Alaska," and the result is a film that doesn't fit into any one category but cleverly spans the spectrum.

"That's what I've always loved about David Kelley's scripts the blend of tones," says Roach. "Serious issues and relationship issues, but a lot of comedy along the way."

Roach says he connected to the story's depiction of small-town life, so he set out to win the job of directing the film, assuming the odds were against him. "I'd directed the first "Austin Powers," and didn't really have a shot at "Mystery" the studio (Disney) was looking for an action guy or a sports guy. I met with David and said, 'Look, I know mostly broad comedy but I grew up in New Mexico, where small towns were a big part of life and stood for something old fashioned a sense of community.' I related, because the ritual of hockey in this film is the same as the ritual of football in the small Texas and New Mexico towns where I played football."

Plenty of people were surprised to find out that David E. Kelley wrote the screenplay for this summer's shlocky B-movie horror film, "Lake Placid." It hardly was what anyone expected from the distinguished, Emmy-winning writer. At first glance, "Mystery" might seem to be almost as much of a stretch for Kelley. But, says Roach, the hockey theme is in fact a very personal one for Kelley and his writing partner, Sean O'Byrne. "David grew up with hockey. His dad was a coach and he played at Princeton with Sean, who grew up in this small Canadian town in the middle of nowhere." Roach, on the other hand, didn't even know how to skate. He managed to land this job, though. "It meant a lot to me that they were willing to trust me to get the feel of their story," Roach says.

The director acknowledges that this film is certainly going to show that he can do more than the extreme, surreal comedy of "Austin Powers," but adds that that wasn't the main appeal of "Mystery." "I don't choose films for reasons like that," Roach says. "I try to put myself in the audience's place. I love getting caught up in the world of a film, and trying to transport people there. With "Austin Powers," by the end, I really wanted to hang out with Dr. Evil. Here, by the end I wanted to be mayor of Mystery, Alaska." By then, of course, he'd learned to skate.

"Mystery, Alaska" was in fact filmed in the starkly beautiful Canadian wilderness. Roach and his production crew had envisioned a remote, isolated little town built around the focal point of the town's social life: an outdoor hockey rink. Not surprisingly, they couldn't find one fitting their specific requirements, so they decided to build a town from scratch. "There were several adversarial meetings with Disney when I tried to convince them it was a wise choice to build the town," Roach says. "They rightly said, 'Are you crazy?' But building it allowed us to have creative freedom."

Mystery, Alaska With the town of Mystery built, Roach trudged off to confront the elements with an eclectic cast of actors including Burt Reynolds, Australian Russell Crowe, Ron Eldard, Hank Azaria and Mary McCormack. Since so much of this story takes place out of doors, as the Mystery hockey team goes through its paces at the rink, Roach and the rest of the filming team often found themselves at the mercy of nature. Fortunately, Roach says, nature was relatively cooperative. "A few times, I wished it would snow more. And at the beginning it was almost too cold to film. But after the town was built, a couple of feet of snow fell on it right before we started, and that snow stayed. It was almost like we'd designed that weather." Towards the end of the production, however, the weather suddenly turned warm, and the crucial frozen elements of the film's sets began to thaw. It was time to call up the artificial ice pros, says Roach, whose task was to re-freeze Mystery.

Roach, novice skater that he is, says it was daunting to go into a film knowing that so much of it would involve scenes filmed on ice, and that those scenes would involve hockey, one of the fastest-moving of professional sports. "I embraced the challenge," Roach says. "I figured I could get caught up in it, the fever of it, and I tried to put the camera in a place that could connect to that feeling. I was shooting from the gut, as opposed to the way hockey had been shot before."

Roach's habit of trying to develop empathetic relationships with so many of a film's elements, including his potential audience, pays off in "Mystery," which turns out to be a film with a real emotional core. It also paid off, Roach says, in terms for expanding his personal horizons. "In the end, I really wanted to live there. That part of Canada was just a really great place to be in general. The isolation. We skated every Sunday and we played hockey. It was a really mystical place."

Roach says he certainly doesn't expect "Mystery, Alaska" to have as broad an appeal as "Austin Powers." He realizes that it's going to be difficult to lure in anyone who's the least bit skeptical about hockey movies. Word about the film has already spread from small town to small town, says Roach. Perhaps it's because so few films these days make the effort to explore the intangible but vital sense of community that exists outside of metropolitan America.

"I can tell you that people who live in towns where the lakes freeze over are already zealous about this," Roach says. "It brings back nostalgia, I think, for anyone who might be or have been around that world. I don't know that the audience for "Mystery" will be large, but I do see it as, hopefully, a devoted one."

At the Movies: Mystery, Alaska
By DAVID GERMAIN (Associated Press Writer)

The fanatical hockey players of Mystery, Alaska, a mythical Mudville where the path of glory is paved with ice, are watching a videotape of their next unlikely opponent, the New York Rangers. As a brawl among the NHL stars drags on, one of the Mystery players offers a suggestion to help prepare for the game: "Maybe we should fast-forward to the hockey part." If only the makers of "Mystery, Alaska" had followed that cue.

"Mystery" enters sudden death from the outset. The first two-thirds of this Cinderella-on-ice story drags its tail like a defenseman who's been on the rink for a full period without a breather. After an hour of tedious melodrama, the movie comes alive only when the Rangers arrive for a bizarre open-air game against the home team. How strange that the movie lumbers along so woodenly before then, considering it's the latest big-screen entry from small-screen scribe and producer David E. Kelley, this year's double Emmy winner for "Ally McBeal" and "The Practice." Kelley co-wrote and co-produced the character-driven "Mystery," but there's little evidence of the sharp dialogue from his character-driven TV shows.

There's a fine ensemble cast featuring Russell Crowe, Hank Azaria, Lolita Davidovich, Mary McCormack, Colm Meaney and Burt Reynolds as the patriarchal town judge and hockey coach. But there's just not much for them to sink their skates into.

The idea was a sound one for the sort of eccentric characterizations Kelley excels at. Mystery, Alaska, a town of 633 somewhere in the wastelands north of Fairbanks, lives for its Saturday hockey games. The players enter their pond rink along a snaking ice trail to the reverential cheers of the fans. The town fathers painstakingly assess each player's performance. Schoolchildren gossip over who might get dumped from the team and what fresh young skater might be "going up."

The town catches the NHL's eye when an expatriate Mystery native (Azaria) lands an article in Sports Illustrated, hyperbolically stating that Mystery's players can skate with the best of the pros. The league decides to dispatch the Rangers to Mystery for an exhibition game, bringing dreams of glory and terror of failure to the town. "What if we lose this game 25-zip?" Crowe, the town sheriff, asks Azaria. "You brought back the one thing that could tear the heart out of this place." Amid the tumult of the Rangers' visit comes a spate of small-town problems.

The mayor's wife is cheating on him with one of the hockey players. Crowe grapples with age as he's cut from the team in favor of a younger skater. A grocery clerk, one of the team's key players, is put on trial for shooting a corporate spy from retail behemoth Price World in the foot. None of this is terribly interesting, though. The situations are milked excessively for what is little more than piffling drama, choking off the few humorous forays in the first part of the film, such as the team's method of punishment: Forcing a player to slide feet first into a snow bank wearing only a jockstrap. The grocery shooting amounts to nothing more than a cheap device to show how far the town will go to rally 'round its team. Once the trial is over, the Price World scenario, which at first seemed integral to the small-town-vs.-outside-world plot, disappears through the ice.

Jay Roach, who directed the "Austin Powers" movies, seems lost in weak material early on with "Mystery." He finally gets some action going about the time Crowe pulls Azaria over for driving a Zamboni under the influence.

In a witty scene, Mystery's mayor conspires with Little Richard to sing an interminable version of the national anthem to keep the Rangers, unused to arctic weather, immobile. Little Richard then launches into "O Canada."

"Austin Powers" star Mike Myers makes a funny appearance as a hockey commentator spouting such colorful sports babble as, "If you don't play this game with a big heart and big bag of knuckles in front of the net, you don't got dinky-doo." By then, though, the movie is down 12-0 without much chance of catching up.

"Mystery, Alaska," needed a heavier dose of the wit and oddity that characterized the small-screen "Northern Exposure," set in fictional Cicely, Alaska, or Kelley's own "Picket Fences." It's a mystery why a talent like Kelley couldn't deliver a big-league script.

"Mystery, Alaska," distributed by Buena Vista Pictures, is rated R.


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