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[whitespace] Burden's wit survives in 'Mystery Men'

By Richard von Busack

THE MIDDLE-AGED WOULD-BE SUPERHERO the Blue Raja (Hank Azaria) still lives in his mom's house. In one scene in The Mystery Men, the Raja dresses down his mother (Louise Lasser) for invading his incense-fumed inner sanctum without knocking; he growls, "I can't even count the rules you're breaking." Stuff like that proves that a little bit of cartoonist Bob Burden's wit survives in The Mystery Men, directed by Kinka Usher. Usher was previously the auteur of the talking Chihuahua campaign for Taco Bell. Much of Burden was discarded, though: in Burden's Flaming Carrot comics, the Spleen was an actual living spleen, man-sized and man-shaped. He certainly wasn't a walking fart joke, as played by Paul "Pee Wee Herman" Reubens.

Above all, The Mystery Men demonstrates that there's enough drama in the concept of a superhero team to work as cinema. What's really interesting isn't the superpowers but the various feuds between the dithering Mr. Furious (Ben Stiller), the mom-issued Raja, the dad-issued Bowler (Janeane Garofalo) and the wife-issued Shoveler (played by William H. Macy with unusual but never undue sincerity). No one who reads comic books should make fun of soap opera watchers and vice versa.

Clever, too, the casting of Tom Waits as a scientific genius who lives with his gadgets in an abandoned amusement park (which is how we fans imagine Waits lives). Even Garofalo's usual dull sarcasm shines here a little. Her Bowler is a bit of a punkette, and that kind of character justifies the misanthropy and plainness of her persona, giving it a reason to exist. Right before she appears, the movie uses the punk-rock classic "No More Heroes" by the Stranglers, performed (abjectly) by the Violent Femmes. The film might be a metaphoric story of punk rock, really. We have a team of rejects banding together, opposed by the corporate Captain Amazing (Greg Kinnear) on the one hand and by Geoffrey Rush's disco-loving villain Cassanova Frankenstein on the other. (Casanova? Shouldn't it be Casablanca, in honor of the record label?)

As a TV commercial director turned filmmaker, Usher has all of the usual tics--he brings in the camera too close to faces, and he uses editing to force a rhythm instead of making the film flow. Commercial directors turned film directors are rarely good with narrative, and there's much wasted space in The Mystery Men, especially in a time-marking romance between a waitress (played by Claire Forlani) and Ben Stiller.

The Mystery Men satirizes the look of the Batman films, but Usher has also appropriated Tim Burton's disinterest in storytelling. Still, here's a movie so resolutely color-blind that it hardly seems right to ask if a black superhero called Invisible Boy is some sort of reference to Ralph Ellison's famous novel. And the finale has the city endangered by an electrical fountain, ready to change all of the citizens of Champion City into hallucinations. Which really sounds like a job for Flaming Carrot, after all.

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From the August 12-18, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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