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"MYSTERY, ALASKA"
(1999) (Russell Crowe, Mary McCormack) (R)

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QUICK TAKE:
Drama/Comedy: A small, hockey revering Alaskan town prepares for a visit and match with a professional hockey team.
PLOT:
In the remote Alaskan town of Mystery, hockey is the most revered activity around. With the weekly pond matches that take place every Saturday being nearly ritualistic in nature, the recent big news is that Mayor Scott Pitcher (COLM MEANEY) and his council have decided that Captain John Biebe (RUSSELL CROWE), the town sheriff, is getting a bit long in the tooth to continue playing.

Thus, they decide to replace him with a young and upcoming player, Stevie Weeks (RYAN NORTHCOTT), who happens to be dating Marla Burns (RACHEL WILSON), the daughter of the town's judge and former local hockey coach, Walter Burns (BURT REYNOLDS).

All of that is eclipsed, however, when a story by former resident Charlie Danner (HANK AZARIA) appears in Sports Illustrated exclaiming how the local guys could easily compete against any NHL team. Suddenly the small town is thrust into the limelight. As such, Charlie, an associate TV producer, returns to Mystery hoping to persuade everyone that a match between the locals and the New York Rangers would be a great publicity stunt.

Biebe, who's already upset about being removed from the team, isn't so sure about the idea, particularly since he notices that his wife, Donna (MARY McCORMACK), has suddenly lit up upon the arrival of Charlie, her former boyfriend. While Judge Burns, whose son Birdie (SCOTT GRIMES) is on the team, also voices his dissent, the townsfolk, including local attorney Bailey Pruitt (MAURY CHAYKIN), rule in favor of allowing the game.

Thus, as Mystery begins preparing for the arrival of their NHL foe, other things begin heating up around town as well. This includes the Mayor learning that his wife, Mary Jane (LOLITA DAVIDOVICH), has been carrying on an affair with the town's lothario, Skank Martin (RON ELDARD), who's also bedded other women.

As the days count down to the big match and as the press arrives to televise it, everyone in town hopes that the team, including the likes of gentle giant Tree Lane (KEVIN DURAND) and Connor Banks (MICHAEL BUIE), a grocery clerk, have what it takes not only to win, but also defend Mystery's honor and uphold their dreams.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
Americans have always had a fondness for small towns and that feeling has often translated to both the small and big screen. Whether it's due to a nostalgic longing for days gone by, or a reaction to ever- increasing sprawl and impersonal urban areas, people love the idea of small town life where everyone knows everybody, the local law goes by the names of Andy and Barney, and polite, freckle-faced kids named Opie ride their bikes through town.

Of course, for those who've lived in small towns, the old saying of familiarity breeding contempt occasionally comes into play, especially when the gossip mill allows everyone to know a little more about the neighbor than he or she probably wished.

Put that situation in a remote and isolated setting and the effect intensifies exponentially. That's part of the notion behind Hollywood Pictures' release of "Mystery, Alaska." Disregarding the appropriate, but oddly named title, the picture -- and one of its characters who's appropriately named "Skank" -- want us to believe that in this small town the only two "fun" events in which one can participate are sex and hockey.

While that's about as far from Mayberry as one could get, and considering that the former subject has been covered, oh, just a "few" times throughout the history of film, the latter -- for what it's worth -- has been relatively shortchanged on the silver screen when compared with other sports.

With the witty, but raunchy "Slap Shot" (the 1977 film starring Paul Newman) now not much more than a distant memory, and the ice action in "Sudden Death" (the Jean-Claude Van Damme flick) probably not being what drew what little audiences actually attended that film, serious hockey fans have been left high and dry for the most part. Of course that leaves the "Mighty Ducks" films to appease that audience, but that's not saying much, and as such, this release should be a welcomed change for its apparently more accurate representation of the sport.

Something of a combination of those kiddie hockey flicks with TV's "Northern Exposure," the film may be awkwardly titled and ultimately proves to be a less than stellar drama or comedy. Yet by the time the big game finale rolls around, the film has managed to slowly weave its small town, high charisma charm over the audience in a mostly winning fashion.

Although the cold weather citizens who inhabit this picture aren't quite as idiosyncratic as one might expect or imagine (for good or bad, depending on how you view such quirky characters), and the script isn't as creative or fabulous as you'd like it to be (which is something of a surprise since it's co-written by David E. Kelley -- the creative whirlwind behind TV's imaginative "Ally McBeal" and it's more serious cohort, "The Practice," as well as the writer of "To Gillian on her 37th Birthday"), the film still manages to work by simply telling a dramatically solid, but certainly not spectacular story.

As directed by Jay Roach (the two "Austin Powers" films), and written by Kelley and Sean O'Bryne (who wrote an episode for Kelley's show "Picket Fences"), there's nothing particularly special or unique to the story, and there's nothing earth shattering -- save the town's pride -- at stake by its conclusion. Without the raucous qualities found in "Slapshot" or the typical small and remote town's eccentricities and charm (think of "Waking Ned Devine"), one may get the impression that this is a boring picture.

Yet for its rather humdrum and less than spectacular approach -- notwithstanding the small town sex and politics -- the film manages to remain entertaining enough to hold one's interest throughout. That's mainly due to the charismatic cast and their mostly winning performances. While the film has a few too many key characters (which works on a TV show where they have many episodes and/or seasons to blossom and flourish, but often feels spread thin in a single movie), most are decent enough, if somewhat diluted, to keep things entertaining.

As the town's sheriff and recently booted player, Russell Crowe ("L.A. Confidential," "Virtuosity") is enjoyable, although he's considerably more laid back than in many of his previous roles. Hank Azaria ("Mystery Men," "Godzilla") is appropriately smarmy as the hometown son who returns with a mixed gift, while Mary McCormack ("True Crime," "Private Parts") brings a grounded, but vulnerable element to the proceedings.

The rest of the performances -- of which there are too many to individually list -- range from good to decent, with Kevin Durand (making his feature film debut) as the gentle giant character, appropriately named "Tree," inhabiting the most enjoyable character. Brief, but fun cameos from the likes of Mike Myers and Little Richard round out the performances.

Like this past summer's less than stellar Kelley-written picture, "Lake Placid," this film lacks the creative spark found in Kelley's TV shows (including several courtroom scenes that are present). Whether that's because Kelley has difficulty writing beyond the sixty minute format or simply because like his TV shows, viewers need repeated exposure to the characters and their setting to fully enjoy them, the film -- while not horrible by any means -- simply lacks that extra something to make it stand out.

Moderately entertaining, featuring some decent performances and the old David and Goliath premise that rarely fails to engage the audience -- this time playing out on a hockey rink -- the film isn't anything special, but is clearly enjoyable enough if there's nothing else available to strike your viewing fancy. We give "Mystery, Alaska" a 5 out of 10.




Reviewed September 15 1999 / Posted October 1, 1999


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