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Mystery, Alaska

Review by Elias Savada
Posted 1 October 1999

Directed by Jay Roach.

 Starring Russell Crowe
Hank Azaria
, Mary McCormack
Lolita Davidovich
, Ron Eldard
Colm Meaney
, Maury Chaykin
Michel McKean
, Judith Ivey
Burt Reynolds
, and Mike Myers.

Written by David E. Kelley 
Sean O’Byrne

It’s about time someone slapped David E. Kelley on the side of the head and said “Enough with the water!” Bear with me a minute. He’s born in Waterville, Maine, apparently with water on the brain, because he’s fixated on fluid mechanics in his most recent big screen offerings. Yeah, he’s the king of tv (The Practice, Ally McBeal), although Snoops didn’t look too promising in it’s premiere this week. Since this isn’t a boob tube column, I’ll get back to basic theatrical movie fare -- and this film aptly fits there, although it could just as easily be a cable tv film (rated R for language and sexuality) -- and examine the afflicted patient with his liquid obsession. Lake Placid earlier this year, and now Mystery, Alaska (okay, it’s frozen water). Even in To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday there’s a lot of seaside action. This latest hockey opus is standard polar fare, Picket Fences on ice, so to speak, with Burt Reynolds subbing for Ray Walston as the judge, and Russell Crowe and Mary McCormack in the Tom Skerritt–Kathy Baker sheriff husband and his wife roles. Reportedly budgeted at a miniscule $6 million, this far-fetched David and Goliath tale of a “legendary” hockey team in a town of 633 people getting to meet, greet, and hopefully beat the big, burly (and imitation) New York Rangers on home ice skates along well enough, held up by a collection of loony eccentrics with flaming libidos on frigid terrain, barely powered by Jay Roach, the director of both Austin Powers films. Pure escapist Northern Exposure fluff.

The postcard-perfect mountains of Alaska frame the white-bleached skies of Mystery, an Alaskan borough where tradition rules every Saturday afternoon with must-see, ice cam, nonprofessional action at the pond, where a dozen or so mostly aging boys are adored by most of the townspeople as they pass the puck. Elder skatesman and provincial law enforcer John Biebe (a long-haired, gruffy Crowe doing his impersonation of a lumberjack) is about to be retired for new high school blood after a 13-year reign, but he’s not going to take it sitting down (heck, his butt would stick to the ice if he did). After native son/sports reporter Charles Danner (Hank Azaria, who threw cutlery earlier this year in the anti-hero dud Mystery Men) writes up the locals in a three-page Sports Illustrated spread, Mystery goes bonkers when Charles returns home to broker a potential contest with the men from New York. Turns out that John’s wife Donna (McCormack) had ditched the writer in 12th grade and sexual tensions and jealousies compound the situation. Infidelities are everywhere, actually, involving some of the players, some of their bosses, and some of the media hyping the show. The latter gets slapped around pretty bad, as the ensuing circus takes its toll. Don’t worry, everything comes out squeaky clean in the end. Except for large warehouse discount chains, as the fictitious Price World sends a snotty, invective-filled representative (Michael McKean) snooping around the local general store. He ends up wounded and eventually in the court of Judge Walter Burns (Burt Reynolds), who, as “the voice of reason,” must make seemingly weighty decisions involving this smaller “us vs. them” battle pitting the noble townspeople against the “wicked” outside conglomerate.

The cast, even when wrapped in proud, quaint shells, is pretty much swallowed up by locker room dialogue and long stretches of frosty-breathed boredom on the edge of nowhere. Honorable mentions to Lolita Davidovitch as the lonesome wife of the self-absorbed mayor (Star Trek’s Colm Meaney), and Ron Eldard (Deep Impact, E.R.) as the lady killing Skank “wrong middle vowel” Marden, who gets a brutal comeuppance at the end of a shovel. Short appearances by Little Richard, singing the National and Canadian (well, it was filmed in Canada) anthems, and Mike Myers as a television analyst don’t add much to the show.

Unless you’re a hockey fan (and even then, Mystery, Alaska may lose a few) or read National Geographic -- Cinematographer Peter Deming (Austin Powers II, Music of the Heart) captures the landscapes well -- you’re in for a disappointing, grumpier old Mighty Ducks.

Mystery, Alaska was originally due out earlier this year and now looks like an early October casualty coming as the National Hockey League kicks off its 1999-2000 season. If you have spare tickets to a game in D.C., give me a call, I’m game. I love the sport, honest. But don’t ask me along to watch Mystery, Alaska again. You’ll get called for a penalty, two hours for gross misconduct. David E. Kelley gets one, too -- Off-Sides. Stay with the little screen and don’t pamper us with this frozen formula mush.

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