An amiable spoof of comic book heroes, “Mystery Men” may well contain more total yuks than the summer’s other big pop sendup, the second “Austin Powers,” but it also spreads them over an ultimately tiresome two hours. Sharply written, with a lavish look and top-drawer effects adding to the appeal of its large and talented cast, pic achieves a nice balance of fondness and satiric snap, character laughs and goofy action. It’s too bad, then, that its numerous virtues are undercut by a signal failure to follow the leave-’em-wanting-more rule so crucial to comedy. Pic is easily 20 minutes too long, and its overstayed welcome will likely confine it to so-so B.O.
Paean to the world’s super-underachievers kicks off in futuristic Champion City with a large-scale robbery that draws the would-be derring-do of three earnest but unlikely saviors. The Blue Raja (Hank Azaria) sports a turban and Brit accent, and tries to subdue his enemies by flinging forks and spoons. The Shoveler (William H. Macy) wears a hard hat and wields a shovel, while blustering, leather-clad Mr. Furious (Ben Stiller) attempts to level opponents with his bad temper.
It’s not a good night for the team of fearless freelancers. Once again, their bumbling heroics are overshadowed by the arrival of the city’s pre-eminent superhero, the gleaming-toothed Captain Amazing (Greg Kinnear). But the good captain is not as secure as he seems; his success has put all the city’s great supervillains out of commission. Anxious to retain his renown, he secures the prison release of one his archnemeses, Casanova Frankenstein (Geoffrey Rush), who promptly sets himself up in a disco-equipped castle and begins plotting citywide mayhem.
Once Frankenstein manages to turn the tables on Amazing and imprison him in his dungeon, the Blue Raja, the Shoveler and Mr. Furious realize what a challenge faces them and decide to stage a recruitment drive to beef up their team. A citywide talent search turns up all manner of sad-sack hero hopefuls, but eventually they settle on three new members who seem a cut above average.
Invisible Boy (Kel Mitchell) hasn’t yet made himself invisible, but sounds determined to do so. Pimple-faced Spleen (Paul Reubens) targets villains with his precision-aimed flatulence. And the Bowler (Janeane Garofalo) has her father’s skull encased in a supernaturally effective bowling ball. Under the tutelage of a gnomic hero coach called the Sphinx (Wes Studi) and aided by grizzled Doc Heller (Tom Waits), the six heroes — who never decide on a name for their group — gear up to save Champion City from the nefarious Frankenstein.
Though pic boasts several action sequences that are expertly handled and laden with dazzling effects, its most engaging passages by far are the ones focusing on the central sextet’s banter and interaction. Scripter Neil Cuthbert’s dialogue is hip and consistently funny, and provides the basis for appealing, flavorful perfs by pic’s expert ensemble. Macy, Stiller, Azaria and Garofalo all are as distinctively droll as ever, while Reubens (almost unrecognizable in long hair and makeup) makes a pleasing return to form, and newcomer Mitchell registers solidly as the all-too-palpable Invisible Boy. Rush and Kinnear’s spirited supporting work adds to the fun.
Main flaw here is a familiar case of too much of a good thing. That the script needed careful focusing in the pre-production stages is indicated, for example, by the short shrift given co-star Lena Olin in the end product. It seems that some bits already have ended up on the cutting-room floor, but for the whole not to seem overlong, many more needed to land in the same place.
Debuting helmer Kinka Usher gives the production strong pacing and polish, though his reliance on extreme wide-angle lenses tends to make pic’s look a bit monotonous. Tech credits are all first-rate.