Friday, October 15, 2010

Getting Back the Respect We had When We Were 7

Oh hey, when I did that Derrick Comedy post back in May, I did say I was looking forward to doing a review post on Mystery Team soon, didn't I? The movie did hit DVD nearly five months ago, after all.

Well, not everything in life works out as planned, and I only just now finally saw the film through Netflix. I've read enough mixed reactions to it online to say that it isn't a film for everyone, but that said, if you're a fan of Derrick Comedy or Upright Citizens Brigade, you need to watch it. Failure to do so would be most regrettable.

Hit the jump for the review.

Growing up in small town Oakdale, Michigan, the Mystery Team  - Jason, the master of disguise (Donald Glover); Duncan, boy genius (D.C. Pierson); and Charlie, strongest kid in town (Dominic Dierkes) - made a name for themselves as Encyclopedia Brown-style detectives, solving  peewee crime cases for the local kids. Eleven years later, the boys are about to graduate from high school and everyone else has grown up but them.

Realizing how far they'd fallen from their days as respected seven-year-old sleuths, the Mystery Team sees the opportunity to make a name for themselves again when a little girl comes to them with something little out of their league - the mystery of her parents' double homicide. Going on the victims' connection to an ongoing lumber union case and a missing heirloom ring, the boys tumble down the rabbit hole into Oakdale's seedy underbelly where they cross paths with strippers with C-section scars, a heroin-addicted hobo, a violent drug dealer, and more. Their client's older sister, Kelly (Parks and Recreation's always-lovable Aubrey Plaza), is eventually drawn into the shady caper as the mystery begins to unravel, and ends up being the first girl to awaken Jason's stunted affections.

The mystery itself is nothing particularly spectacular, with some fairly predictable cookiecutter twists and turns, but it all works - the film isn't so much about the mystery as the comedy that plays out through these simple characters as they continue their investigation. The film finds its heart both in the Mystery Team's near-single-minded determination to solve the mystery for their client and the emerging theme late in the film of the boys' need to finally grow up and start acting their age - from losing some of their innocence about sex to learning the sheer joy of using the word fuck - with college not far off.

Mystery Team's comedy is almost entirely rooted in the central trio's arrested development, as they react to every situation - however dangerous - with complete naiveté, all the way down to making childish exclamations and remarks where most people their age would instead curse. Their childish innocence continues into any sexual situation, from Charlie awkwardly articulating his attraction to Jason's mother, Jason's parents casually lamenting that their eighteen-year-old son still thought girls were gross, their inability to understand sexual hand gestures, and an amusing brief boner gag following an uncomfortable lapdance scene in a seedy strip club. (Which they infiltrated dressed as high class gentlemen in with top hats and monocles.) Throughout the film, Jason struggles to understand his attraction to Kelly, and only finally gets up the courage to sort-of confess to her at the end after talking to a guy at an office party he infiltrated in disguise (Played by UCB founding member Matt Walsh), whom Jason found to be really sad as a person. And early in the film, the boys rely heavily on accusing their old arch-nemesis - the now-bedridden Old Man McGinty - of guilt in all their cases, to the point of breaking into his house and yelling at him while he lay on his deathbed.

The rest of the supporting cast is rounded out by previous Derrick Comedy collaborators. Current SNL cast member Bobby Moynihan (Who was in "Bro Rape.") plays a local grocery store employee who's obviously horribly depressed, has no friends outside of the Mystery Team, and no real reason to live. His sad state - having worked at that grocery store since he was fifteen and lost pretty much everything else in his life over the years - is key in Jason's character development later in the film. (What little character development there is, anyway - everyone is really two-dimensional at best, but in a way that works well for comedy.) The Office's adorable Ellie Kemper (Previously best known for "Blowjob Girl" with Derrick.) appears throughout the film as Jamie, another teenager caught in arrested development whose sole purpose is to show up and tip off the Mystery Team about possible cases brewing through yelled one liners. ("There's something fishy going on down at the sardine factory! I think it's fish!") There's a particular short cutaway gag with her that ended up being one of the best moments in the film. And comedian Tom Shillue shows up briefly early on as well, though in a straight man role. Derrick Comedy's other two members only make very brief cameos in the film - their producer, Meggie McFadden shows up as a wheelchair bound high school classmate, and director Dan Eckman appears briefly as a guy fucking the bread in the grocery store before running away. (And as an aside, congrats to McFadden and Eckman on their engagement - it was mentioned in the "Who is Wally Cummings?" extra feature comedy sketch on the DVD.)

Mystery Team's plot is basically a simple skeletal framework to layer jokes on, and the jokes in this movie are fairly constant. A few of them fall flat, but most of them at least got a grin out of me, and quite a few actually managed to make me laugh out loud. And it's very rare these days when a film manages to catch me off guard and actually make me laugh, which to me speaks highly of the humor content - the most important part.

Donald Glover, otherwise known as Childish Gambino when producing his own hip-hop, scored the entire film, giving it a sort of childhood high adventure feel, suiting the characters in contrast with the very dark situations they get themselves into throughout the film. Glover's usual hip-hop beats only make a few appearances, standing out most when punctuating the beginning of the end credits. Dan Eckman's direction is competent throughout. The film's flow feels a little bit disjointed at first but smooths out within the first half hour, though the film never loses the feeling that it's basically one big stretched-out comedy sketch. And at heart, that's what it is. Your enjoyment of the film is pretty much determined by whether or not you've liked any of Derrick Comedy's sketches - and if you're into any UCB humor in general, you'll probably enjoy them.

Personally, I got into Derrick Comedy back when I was still in college. It was pretty exciting to me to see comedians my age pulling off good sketch comedy, and for their debut feature film - obvious shoestring budget and all - Mystery Team is a hilarious start. I've enjoyed the group's contributions - and occasional member cameos - on Community, and I'm looking forward to seeing what else they do in the future. Between their work and that of some other sketch groups and young comedians I've seen, I feel I can confidently say that my generation's bringing good things to the comedy world. It's inspiring to me. All the more tempting to try my hand in a comedy screenplay contest in L.A. that has its deadline approaching in about two and a half weeks. I could try putting something shorter together, though I have been kicking around a concept - also characters and dialogue - for an eccentric feature-length comedy movie for a few years now. I'd have to drop a lot of other stuff for the time being to focus primarily on that - and scriptwriting is new to me, so I'd have to take a little time to make sure I got the format and style down - but if I committed myself to it fully, it's possible that I could turn out a feature-length script within a few weeks. I'm confident that the concept is actually funny - I tend to be pretty aware when my work sucks.

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