Sundance 2009: 'Mystery Team'
YouTube comedy group makes distinct and winning first film
Prior to seeing "Mystery Team," I had no knowledge of Derrick Comedy. I read in the Sundance program that they were a YouTube "sensation," but these days, there are so many comedy sites and viral videos that I think it's kind of impossible to keep up with everyone out there. When I sat down in the theater for the midnight show at the Egyptian of "Mystery Team," all I wanted was to laugh.
And I did. A lot.
If you grew up reading "Encyclopedia Brown" books or watching "The Little Rascals" on TV, you'll get the basic touchstones that the film plays off of, but even if you didn't, I have a feeling you'll find plenty to enjoy in the movie. Like much of what's going on in comedy these days, "Myster Team" is the story of man-children, unable to relinquish the things that defined them as kids in order to move on and become adults. I think there's a case to be made that we get the comedy we deserve from generation to generation, and considering my friends and the geek culture in general, we certainly seem to have embraced the deranged manchild archetype. When three of the biggest summer movies this year are based on properties that were aimed at children in the '70s and '80s ("Transformers," "GI Joe," and "Land Of The Lost"), it's hard to describe our pop culture as anything but infantilized. And yet, it's almost celebrated, embraced as a choice and not a defect. So against that backdrop, "Mystery Team" makes perfect sense.
And did I mention that it's really, really funny?
[more after the jump]
Jason, Duncan, and Charlie met as kids, and a mutual love of mysteries led them to create a gang that hired themselves out to solve any mystery or crime in their neighborhood, no matter how small. And as kids, they were cute when they did it, quirky and charming and ambitious. Now, as the three of them prepare to graduate high school, it's gone from cute and quirky to creepy and potentially deadly. They still have The Mystery Team, but real-life is quickly doing everything it can to pull them apart and end the team once and for all. Then the biggest mystery they've ever encountered presents itself, and they have to push themselves to do what no one thinks they can.
Jason (Donald Glover) is the self-described "master of disguise," and the ostensible leader of the group. Glover, a staff writer on "30 Rock," is the glue that holds the film together. Jason believes in the Mystery Team more than anyone else, and his childlike sense of resolve could easily be annoying or just bizarre if played wrong. Glover strikes the exact right tone between genuine innocence and a sort of willful rejection of anything adult. He's also hilarious when he uses his bad accents and his terrible fake moustaches and beards. Not of his disguises even remotely begins to disguise him, but that's the fun.
Duncan (D.C. Pierson) is the self-described "smartest boy in the world," and of course, he's anything but. Most of his knowledge comes from a seriously outdated "1001 Wacky Fun Facts" book that is, to put it politely, completely insane. But like Jason, he's got a self-confidence about his role in the group that carries him along. On first glimpse, he's got a real Napoleon Dynamite thing going on, but it's a surface comparison, nothing more. Pierson finds plenty of original notes to play, and Duncan turns out to be smarter than anyone thinks, at least as far as the changing relationships between the Mystery Team are concerned.
Finally, there's Charlie (Dominic Dierkes), a good-natured lunk who believes himself to be the muscle of the group. He's mainly there to keep both Jason and Duncan feeling good about their own roles in the group, and because he genuinely loves his friends. He's not strong, and he's also not terribly bright, but he's decent to a fault, and both Duncan and Jason lean on Charlie more than they realize.
At the start of the film, we see a typical "case" for them, as an old lady from the neighborhood asks them to figure out who stuck a finger in a pie she just baked. They treat it like the Lindbergh kidnapping, and that hyperseriousness is part of what's so funny in the film. No matter how ridiculous or dark the film gets, the Mystery Team approaches everything with that same straight face, and that same earnest joy, and it makes even the dirtiest of the film's moments seem positively sunshiney. If I had to compare this to anything, I'd compare it to "Pee Wee's Big Adventure," which is high praise from me. Dan Eckman's just as important a part of the comedy as the director as the guys onscreen are. It's not just a comedy sketch haphazardly captured on camera, as happens often with sketch comics who move into film. There's a world here, a tone that's been set, and there's a sly wit to both composition and cutting. I like Donald Glover's score for the film for the same reason... it's part of setting the tone, selling not only specific jokes but the whole film.
Familiar comic faces like Bobby Moynihan (who I just realized I watched work for a full day with Ricky Gervais) and Matt Walsh show up to contribute memorable supporting performances, and Aubrey Plaza plays the girl whose father is murdered, setting the Mystery Team on the trail of the biggest case of their lives. The feelings Jason has for her kick off some of the tension of the film, as he starts to realize that he can't remain a kid forever if he has any chance of ever connecting with someone like her. Even with everyone playing things at this absurd, broad level, there's still room for a bit of sincere sweetness, and that just adds one more shade to a film that is already packed with entertainment.
So far, "The Mystery Team" hasn't sold to a distributor, but I hope that changes. Seeing this reminded me of seeing that first Sundance screening of "Supertroopers" back in 2001. I have a feeling this is just the first film from Derrick Comedy, and I hope there are many more.
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