Control Nathan and Clint: Mystery Men (1999)
In the four years since I left the field of professional film criticism following my departure from The Dissolve I have become something of a softie. I am, and have always been, an enthusiast. A fan. A lover of film and music and podcasts and television and just about everything that falls under the glorious rainbow of pop culture.
When I was a professional film critic I acted almost exclusively out of deeply personal professional jealousy. I could not create anything myself, so I tore down the accomplishments of those who did. I could not BE Michael Bay, tragically, so out of pure envy alone I pretended that his films were not good.
You’d think that being even less successful would make me even bitterer but the opposite has held true. When I write about a movie these days it’s with an eyes towards discovering what’s wonderful and unique and redeemable about it, whether that’s a magnificent supporting performance or a wonderful script or a deliciously demented worldview.
So when I revisit a movie for this site, something I do constantly because I am old as fuck and there are only so many movies, I generally enjoy the experience much more than I did when I was a professional critic. To cite two recent examples, I found myself really digging Monkeybone and Looney Tunes: Back in Action after giving them mixed to negative reviews the first time around.
When a movie does not improve considerably upon a revisit for this here site, I tend to have roughly the same experience the second, or third, or fourth time around that I did the first time. It is rare for me to like a movie substantially less when I rewatch it for the Happy Place but it happens sometimes and I’m always doubly disappointed, because I feel let down by a movie I apparently only liked in the past and by my memory as well.
This most recently happened with Mystery Men. For the latest Control Nathan and Clint poll the contenders were a pair of famously failed superhero team-up movies to pair with Avengers: Endgame: Bret Ratner’s universally loathed X3 and Kinka Usher’s superhero spoof Mystery Men.
I was happy when Mystery Men won because I remembered liking it when I saw it in the theaters a lifetime ago and again when I dubbed it a Secret Success during the first year of My Year of Flops, before it had mutated into My World of Flops. Then I saw that Mystery Men was one hundred and twenty one minutes long and my enthusiasm for it shriveled dramatically. I may even have reflexively let out a “Fuck!” of frustration upon learning that the makers of this very silly, very disposable movie from a particularly silly, disposable era of comedy (post There’s Something About Mary but pre-9/11, essentially) somehow felt their movie needed to be longer than two hours.
I kept cringing softly throughout Mystery Men even as there is a lot in the movie I really, really dig, beginning with the funky chemistry between Ben Stiller, Hank Azaria and William H. Macy, the core members of the titular superhero team. Stiller, who made There’s Something About Mary the year before and would follow Mystery Men with Meet the Parents the following year, completing his unlikely ascent to major movie stardom, is typecast as Mr. Furious, a “superhero” whose “power” comes from his bottomless rage.
Stiller’s turn here provides a dispiriting glimpse into the kinds of roles and performances that would fill the next two decades of Stiller’s filmography in that he works up a sweat trying to salvage a dodgy script through energy, anger, volume and intensity in a way that only underlines Mystery Men’s fundamental weaknesses.
Macy is adorable and relatable as the Shoveler, a paragon of decency and working-class values who is very good at shoveling, something loving, supportive and long-suffering wife Jenifer Lewis very gently reminds him does not constitute an actual super power. Then there’s Azaria as The Blue Raja, a “fork flinging limey” with a persona so complicated and confusing, in part because he does not actually wear any blue in his costume, that he essentially has to explain it extensively for it to even make a little bit of sense.
The trio are a funky independent alternative to the city’s main superhero, Captain Amazing, a blow-dried, corporate-funded Superman type. As played by a wonderfully game, self-deprecating Greg Kinnear, Captain America is a glib phony way more concerned with popularity and sponsorships than the people of saving the populace.
When Captain Amazing is kidnapped by his enemy Casanova Frankenstein (Geoffrey Rush) it falls upon these oddballs and misfits to save the city’s biggest hero. To assist them, they pick up new recruits, including The Sphinx (Wes Studi), a wise Yoda type whose “philosophical” utterances are as hilariously and inextricably rooted in formula as the Cold War zingers of Yacov Smirnoff, Invisible Boy (Kel Mitchell), an affable sidekick type whose power of invisibility may not actually exist and finally Janeane Garofalo as Carol, AKA The Bowler, a deadpan Gen-Xer with the spirit of her demanding dead father inside her magical bowling ball.
Mystery Men is full of funny characters, entertaining performances and eminently quotable lines, like when a spit-balling Captain Amazing asks a publicist played by Ricky Jay why he can’t face off against old nemesis Death Man again and Jay, with exquisite deadpan comic timing, responds “Death Man is dead.”
If Mystery Men is full of wonderful elements why does it feel like such a drag as a whole? Much of the blame belongs to commercial director Kinka Usher, whose heavy-handed, tone-deaf treatment of this material makes it considerably less than the sum of its sometimes impressive parts.
Usher directs as if he’s making a follow-up to Batman & Robin, not an adaptation of a funky independent comic book starring half the cast of The Ben Stiller Show and a fuck ton of cool icons, like Tom Waits, who is completely wasted as the team’s weapon master, and Paul Reubens as The Spleen, a flatulent, acne-scarred “superhero” whose “power” involves farting with explosive force.
Reubens is reduced to nothing more than a walking fart joke. Sometimes Reubens will get very animated and his voice will soar into Pee-Wee registers and I just get sad thinking about how much I love Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure and Pee-Wee’s Playhouse and how much I do not love Mystery Men upon my third viewing.
To aid him in his evil, Casanova Frankenstein is assisted by the Disco Boys, led by the most 1999 duo imaginable: Eddie Izzard and Pras of the Fugees. The joke of the Disco Boys, such as it is, is that because Casanova Frankenstein went to jail in 1979, when, to be honest, disco had already peaked as a cultural movement and economic force, and was released twenty years later he totally still loves disco even though everyone knows that disco is bad and lame and died a very public and richly deserved death.
Mystery Men is perhaps best known as the movie that inspired the music video for Smash Mouth’s “All Star”, the generation-defining anthem that closes out Kinka Usher’s first, last and only motion picture. So it has a lot of chutzpah devoting an unconscionable amount of its running time to non-jokes along the lines of, “Hey, wasn’t disco stupid? With the clothes and the hair and the music? What were they thinking! Anyway, here’s a Smash Mouth song.”
Here’s the thing: disco wasn’t stupid. It was fucking glorious. The clothes, the hair, the music: all were fucking amazing. As someone who lived through 1999 I can vouch that the music, clothes and hair of that particular era are fucking atrocious.
Have you seen a Seinfeld rerun recently? It’s a great show but it could just as easily have been named Get a Load of What These Assholes Are Wearing!
Making fun of disco is cheap and lazy and disingenuous. Even worse, Mystery Men’s weird hard-on for making fun of the most unnecessarily mocked genre ever embodies its “reference as joke” sensibility.
Mystery Men feels like the product of a pre-Iron Man era when comic book adaptations seemed more interested in making fun of the comic books they were bringing to the big screen than in doing them justice. It sure feels like Usher’s pitch for Mystery Men was “Aren’t superheroes dumb in general and Mystery Men in particular? Give me one hundred million dollars and I’ll make a jokey, campy, heavy-handed comedy about how dumb Mystery Men is and how I hate it” and studio executives couldn’t be more excited about his vision because they too think that comic books are dumb and stupid and should be made fun of..
Michael Bay has a cameo here as the leader of a villainous group of frat boys, which would be more amusing, or amusing at all, if the movie did not feel like it was being made by someone with a Michael Bay/McG/Hotshot commercial director mentality.
Mystery Men could have been something. It should have been something. It still kind of is something despite its fatal flaws but it’s nowhere near as good, or as funny, or as satisfying, as it could have been with someone with an actual point of view and an actual sense of humor in the director’s chair.
Ending with not just a Smash Mouth song but the Smash Mouth song wouldn’t feel quite so egregious or unforgivable if the movie didn’t feel like it was pitched more to Smash Mouth fans than the kinds of comic book geeks who might actually be familiar with the Dark Horse Comic book series that very loosely inspired the film.
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