Mystery Men seems like a amusing idea batted around by stand-up comics eating at Denny's after a lousy show.
Unless you've been in that situation, you can't appreciate how anxiously each comedian wants to prove they're still clever, that they were simply too smart for the audience. Everyone else shows support by laughing louder than the jokes deserve, if only to earn equal charity when it's their turn to riff. Small chance that any of the gags would improve routines that just bombed. At least one self-deluded comic will try.
Each frame of Mystery Men is loaded with such slapdash desperation. Intended as a spoof of comic book superheroes, the movie becomes another overblown contraption like Batman and Robin that effectively disabled the genre. Entire scenes are built around a single punchline, and more attention is paid to garish set designs and costumes than one-liners.
The script needs several more rewrites, or at least another discussion over a late-night meal.
One theory about why more care wasn't shown: Mystery Men is populated by several comical actors who believe themselves to be infallible, especially Ben Stiller, Janeane Garofalo and Paul Reubens aka Pee-wee Herman. They are supremely confident that even with the lamest material, they can cultivate laughs. They dare audiences not to be amused. If we decline, they arrogantly consider that to be our loss.
Being shoved into accepting material that doesn't deserve it quickly becomes annoying. The more the stars of Mystery Men push, the more inclined we are to resist. Jokes that rate only a smile eventually get no response. Jokes that don't deserve a response encourage irritated groans. That's fine in a 30-minute TV format where the fame of Stiller, Garofalo and Reubens began. There's always another skit around the corner.
Mystery Men makes a viewer wish that feature films could change their subjects as easily.
The outline of Kinka Usher's debut film is promising: A band of superhero wannabes don't let their lack of any special powers stop them from saving the day. Stiller plays Mr. Furious, who throws tantrums at evildoers. Garofalo is The Bowler, who heaves a ball encasing the skull of her murdered father that still speaks to her. Reubens is The Spleen, whose flatulent artillery can knock out a bad guy with odorous precision. Three characters, three jokes, for nearly two hours.
Usher doesn't know any better. His claim to fame is a series of Taco Bell commercials starring a Chihuahua. Usher probably couldn't shut down the comedic urges of his stars, or demand a better script.
Some impressive actors are wasted along the way. Academy Award winner Geoffrey Rush (Shine) wears a fright wig and long fingernails as Casanova Frankenstein, a super-villain released from prison when things around Champion City get dull. Rush's performance is an embarrassing rant in a Bela Lugosi accent that gets a laugh only when The Spleen unloads in his face.
The ordinary-guy impressions of William H. Macy (Fargo) are out of place in these cartoonish surroundings. He plays The Shoveler, who wears his son's baseball chest protector and swings a mean shovel. Macy's low-key approach barely registers, but it's a relief from Hank Azaria's over-acting as Blue Raja, a deadly aim with any dining utensil except a fork.
The only actors who seem engaged with the inherent absurdities of Mystery Men are Greg Kinnear and Wes Studi. Kinnear gives a nice brush-off to the wan dialogue as Captain Amazing, the reigning superhero with a uniform dotted by product endorsements. Studi is a deadpan contrast to the film's pinball momentum as The Sphinx, a mentor to the Mystery Men who could give Yoda a lesson in double-speak.
Mystery Men is out of control, and out of jokes after the first 30 minutes. That's a shame, because some very funny people are involved. They'll be fine after a cast party of pounding Grand Slam breakfasts and wondering what went wrong.
Director: Kinka Usher
Cast: Ben Stiller, Janeane Garofalo, William H. Macy, Geoffrey Rush, Hank Azaria, Paul Reubens, Greg Kinnear, Wes Studi
Screenplay: Neil Cuthbert, based on comic book characters created by Bob Burden
Rating: PG-13; profanity, violence
Running time: 105 min.