If Encyclopedia Brown hadn’t put down the magnifying glass by his senior year of high school, his life might look a little something like “Mystery Team,” a genuinely funny but amateurishly constructed laffer from Derrick Comedy, a troupe of YouTube-savvy NYU grads with promising writing careers ahead of them. Undeterred by the inherent difficulty of the extended sketch format (a category littered with crash-and-burn “Saturday Night Live” spinoffs), these guys manage to milk an entire feature from their premise. Amateurish presentation seems better suited to DVD or direct download, tapping into the group’s viral fanbase, than the bigscreen.
Girl-shy Jason (Donald Glover), trivia freak Duncan (D.C. Pierson) and dimwit Charlie (Dominic Dierkes) have been friends as long as they can remember, solving neighborhood crimes for a dime — easy stuff, like finding lost cats or catching the hooligan who left his footprint in the wet cement. To their peers’ and parents’ amazement, the kids never grew out of the habit.
“There go three virgins,” Jason’s dad says as the “Mystery Team” trio heads off for yet another inconsequential case. One thing they’ve never done (besides get past first base with a member of the opposite sex) is tackle a mystery of real import, so they’re caught completely off guard when a local girl shows up asking them to find her father’s killer.
Part “Scooby-Doo,” part potty-mouthed high school sendup, the pic follows the socially stunted threesome as they dig for clues, grilling a homeless man (Jason, the group’s master of disguise, dresses like a Depression-era Okie), infiltrating a gentlemen’s club (going undercover as members of high society in the film’s single funniest scene) and scoring drugs from the likely killer (while trying to fend off his randy girlfriend’s advances).
In concept, “Mystery Team” delivers, with many of the sequences proving as entertaining as early Zucker or Wayans Brothers projects, yet the execution is crippled by hapless direction. Helmer Dan Eckman doesn’t seem to understand the concept of coverage, recording nearly every scene in one or two extended takes. Pic runs long, but as shot, making trims would mean having to cut entire sequences or do reshoots, since Eckman’s approach makes it impossible to tighten the performers’ comic timing. (It does, however, make for more natural chemistry than the traditional shot-reverse-shot framing.)
As for the cast, Glover is infectiously animated, stealing the frame when all three stars are onscreen; Pierson seems to be revisiting Jon Heder’s Napoleon Dynamite character, but can think on his feet; and Dierkes may not be especially convincing playing the simpleton, but that’s a good thing. Glover would be advised to stay away from music in the future, however; his score sounds like someone wanted a John Williams knockoff, only louder.