You can take the boys out of TV, but you can’t take TV out of the boys — in the case of “Mystery, Alaska,” co-writers and tube vets David E. Kelley and Sean O’Byrne. Curiously mild and underwhelming in its efforts to stir up “Hoosiers”-like sentiment for the violent and thrilling game of hockey, tale of remote Alaskan town obsessed with the sport and thrust into an unlikely faceoff with the New York Rangers is another of Kelley’s patented admixtures of drama and comedy. But overlong story forces pic’s natural base of hockey fans to wait a long stretch for the puck to drop. Without top stars to carry the team and burdened with a mysteriously misleading title, Hollywood Pictures shouldn’t hope for repeat of the male-female demo balance and numbers enjoyed by similarly pitched “For Love of the Game.”
Like that love letter to baseball and relationships, “Mystery” attempts to intercut between the grind of men playing a game they deeply adore and their private lives with women — while employing a Gotham world-champ club as the bad guys. Rather than a loner athlete played by someone of Kevin Costner’s status, however, here we have a community filled with reputable, reliable nonstar actors struggling to adapt to the cold Great North. Perhaps because it is keyed to Kelley and O’Byrne’s shared love of the rink, “Mystery, Alaska” is measurably more successful than Kelley’s previous 1999 rural pic, the woefully undernourished “Lake Placid.”
Helmer Jay Roach, straying far from his more enjoyably stylish “Austin Powers” world, establishes an exultant view of the high mountain setting (actually shot in the Alberta Rockies), with a seriously explosive theme from composer Carter Burwell recalling the early moments of “Fargo.” But from grand-scale shots of young hockey phenom Stevie Weeks (Ryan Northcott) skating down a frozen river, pic quickly skews small and flat as we’re introduced to various folk of Mystery (the town’s name, which surely has some local meaning, is never explained).
Sheriff John Biebe (Russell Crowe) has a happy home with his wife, Donna (Mary McCormack), and cute boys Michael (Joshua Silberg) and Joey (Regan Sean O’Byrne Macelwain). It’s up to Mayor Scott Pitcher (Colm Meaney) to tell 34-year-old John what everyone in town knows — that, as captain of the local hockey club who has played a record 13 years in the traditional “Saturday Game,” John has to step aside for up-and-comer Stevie.
A Sports Illustrated cover story by ex-Mystery resident Charlie Danner (Hank Azaria) about hockey’s grassroots, with spotlight on the town and its team, excites locals and leads to an unexpected turn: Stuck-up Charlie arrives to announce that his story has spurred the National Hockey League to schedule a midseason exhibition game with the local team.
Script concurrently stockpiles so many mini-dramas, subplots and one-to-two-minute scenes that it seems scribes are employing TV episodic writing for a three-act feature. A few strands involve stern Judge Walter Burns (Burt Reynolds) and his testy family, with wife Joanne (Judith Ivey); randy daughter Marla (Rachel Wilson), who wants sex with b.f. Stevie; and team player Birdie (Scott Grimes), who resents Dad for his harsh game critique.
Others revolve around player “Skank” Marden (Ron Eldard), who’s wreaking havoc by bedding seemingly half the town’s women, including the mayor’s wife (Lolita Davidovich). Multiplying subplots, especially a ludicrous one dealing with a Wal-Mart-type superstore trying to set up local shop, might be what the filmmakers believe is this work’s heart and soul, but they severely grind down any momentum toward scoring dramatic goals. Indeed, they distract from what would seem to be natural issues of conflict that are raised and abruptly dropped, including the matter of whether the match should be played on locals’ traditional pond or in an enclosed, advert-laden rink a la the NHL.
By game time at 90-minute mark, pic has let its eye stray off the puck for much too long, and even the occasionally stirring nail-biter can’t make a big score. Mike Myers makes an amusing appearance as acerbic game commentator Donnie Shulzhoffer, while real-life hockey vets Phil Esposito, Doug McLeod and Jim Fox call the game. Typical of Kelley’s taste for off-center asides, rocker Little Richard takes a turn as National Anthem crooner.
Pic can’t shake off a laggard quality that infects several perfs, especially that of the usually dynamic Crowe, who appears lost on ice with his murky character. Without that central rooting interest, pic relies on ensemble allure, with mixed results. Azaria’s natural comic instincts are redirected to dislikable smarminess that’s more immature than evil, while Meaney’s fireball reserves as a thesp are kept to a low simmer in the role of an absurdly meek cheated hubby.
The lower tone, though, helps Maury Chaykin, who, as an ailing attorney, mostly controls his habit for overacting, but it constricts Reynolds, whose character’s change of heart barely registers. Femme thesps McCormack, Davidovich and Wilson seem much more at home with their characters, even though we’re reminded that this is a rough clime for gals. Team guys should be — but aren’t — pic’s focus, with Eldard leading the way with lots of manly, comic spirit.
Majestic setting, with tiny burg at foot of humongous peaks, is underused by Roach and lenser Peter Deming, though Burwell makes up for it with another of his scores that’s superior to the film it’s supporting. Notable achievement on tech side belongs to production designer Rusty Smith, who built the town set from scratch in a thorough manner not seen since Altman’s “McCabe and Mrs. Miller.”