Friday October 1, 1999
"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 Exposure"-ish Alaska hamlet, population 633.
While it's unclear what most people do for a living in Mystery, hockey is the place's No. 1 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 one another 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 left Mystery (mostly because he was one of the town's worst skaters) for a writing career in Manhattan, has gotten a story on the 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, it's 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 Kelley'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 halfhearted on television, there would be a lot fewer Emmys for him to call his own.
Mystery, Alaska, 1999. R, for language and sexuality. A Hollywood Pictures presentation, distributed by Buena Vista Pictures. Director Jay Roach. Producers David E. Kelley, Howard Baldwin. Executive producer Dan Kolsrud. Written by David E. Kelley, Sean O'Byrne. Cinematographer Peter Deming. Production design Rusty Smith. Editor Jon Poll. Music Carter Burwell. Costume design Deena Appel. Art director Andrew Neskoromny. Set decorator Elizabeth Wilcox. Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes. Russell Crowe as John Biebe. Hank Azaria as Charles Danner. Mary McCormack as Donna Biebe. Burt Reynolds as Judge Walter Burns. Colm Meaney as Mayor Scott Pitcher. Lolita Davidovich as Mary Jane Pitcher. Maruy Chaykin as Bailey Pruitt.