Mystery, Alaska

(Jay Roach, USA, 1999)


Commentators regularly bemoan the use of the word quirky to describe almost all contemporary Australian cinema. The good news is that now, as a nation, we can finally give the term away to its rightful owner: writer-producer David E. Kelley of Ally McBeal fame.

Quirky, kinky, folksy, eccentric – all such words apply to Mystery, Alaska, a big screen project of Kelley's. Less distinctive than his previous genre-bender, Lake Placid (1999), this one works deft variations upon the homely sports movie.

The local ice hockey team is the pride of the small town of Mystery. When ex-resident Charles (Hank Azaria) writes a feature piece on the team in a national sports publication, a big city team announces it is coming to Mystery for a show match.

This prospect prompts both excitement and a delicate anxiety in the community. Is the team really good enough? Will the televised game make the town look merely ridiculous? This intrigue runs in tandem with the personal quest of the coach, John (Russell Crowe), for a little dignity.

Rather like the Australian comedy Road to Nhill (1997), this one finds its drollest laughs in the variously stoic, shy, befuddled and bullish behaviour of men. Burt Reynolds and Colm Meaney shine in one-dimensional but well-written parts. And since the director is Jay Roach, fresh off the Austin Powers series, Mike Myers also gets a colourful cameo.

Mystery, Alaska is a well-crafted, often delightful diversion. Even at its most formulaic, it manages to tweak the familiar situation of the underdog sports conflict in amusing, inventive ways. It is also surprisingly touching at moments – as when John blacks out most of the text in a handy 'Dear Abby' column in order to communicate a sweet, intimate message to his wife.

MORE Roach: Meet the Fockers

© Adrian Martin March 2000

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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