SDCC ’09: MYSTERY TEAM Review

     July 25, 2009

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I’ve been a DERRICK comedy fan for a few years now.  I’m sure that there are many who can say that, but it’s gonna matter after this fall when the movie hits theatres and the comedy troupe blows up in a big way.  When that happens, we can say that we loved DERRICK comedy before they were popular and totally sold-out (even though they’re not going to sell-out, anything that was indie and then became popular is automatically “selling-out”).  Already greeted with tremendous adulation at this year’s Sundance Film Festival along with screenings in both New York and LA, the buzz on this film is getting intense and not to jinx it, but I think it’s destined to be a sleeper hit or a massive cult smash.  I’m absolutely fine with that because not only was I into them before you, but their debut feature film, “Mystery Team” is the funniest film I’ve seen this year.

Hit the jump to find out why.

Written by stars Donald Glover, D.C. Pierson, Dominic Dierkes, producer Meggie McFadden, and director Dan Eckman, “Mystery Team” is best described by a statement I overheard while I was waiting for the screening to begin: “It’s PG-characters in an R-rated movie.”* Jason (Glover), Duncan (Pierson), and Charlie (Dierkes) are amateur detective and have been the “Mystery Team” since they were all 7-years-old and charging a dime to solve cases like missing cats and stolen lunch money.  The only problem is they’re all seventeen now and they’re still behaving like they were seven.  They dress like they were seven, the talk like they were seven, and they approach the world as if they were still seven.  You could say that this is the same league of man-children we’ve seen in recent years from Will Ferrell and Judd Apatow’s films, but those characters are older and the immaturity of the trio is actually an important thematic point and not just intended for laughs.

the_mystery_team_movie_image.jpgThat’s not to say that it doesn’t provide laughs.  The characters are so sweet and innocent that you feel protective of them but at the same time, it’s absolutely hilarious to watch them in situations so far out of their league.  They’re Encyclopedia Brown and the Hardy Boys except their new case is one that’s way out of their league: they’re asked by an adorable 8-year-old girl if they can find out who killed her parents.  At first they’re a little skittish about it but Jason relishes the idea while Duncan just thinks they should just go to the police.  Charlie is so thick that he’ll just do whatever.  But Jason convinces his friends to take the case (especially since he develops a massive crush on the little girl’s older sister, Kelly, played by Aubrey Plaza who I wish had more to do in this film but you can see her be great on “Parks and Recreation” and the upcoming “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World”), and he leads them into their small town’s seedy underbelly where their immaturity collides with the maturity of the situation and it’s painfully funny.  I’m thinking back to some scenes right now and they’re still making me grin.  I have one in particular that absolutely destroyed me but this is the kind of film where everyone’s going to have a bunch of different favorite moments and they could all end up different.  I refuse to spoil any of them for you but the trailers deliver on the tone and humor of the film.

I don’t mean to go super-serious on such a funny film, but one of the aspects I most appreciate about “Mystery Team” is that it’s a film about maturity (not to be confused with “coming-of-age”) and what it means to be an adult.  Yes, these are three characters in a state of highly arrested development.  They’ve bought into their own definitions of Jason as a “master-of-disguise”, Duncan as a “boy genius”, and Charlie as “the strongest kid in the world”.  Their self-defined roles totally backfire because they’re not based in reality, but they steadfastly believe in those roles because it’s their entire (albeit simplistic) identity.  They’re safe inside their nostalgic bubbles where they remember how everyone loved them and thought they were cute when they were seven but they don’t understand why everyone is such a dick to them these days.  Furthermore, they have no way to respond because it’s not really in their vocabulary.

The characters’ stunted maturity is something we ourselves encounter in how we refuse to let go of the things we cherish.  Granted, most of us learn how to grow up and still enjoy our past hobbies and entertainment, but we know how to separate the two.  These characters haven’t done that which is why it makes for such great comedy when it’s presented in its exaggerated form.  Furthermore, I think it’s a stronger “man-child” movie than the Will Ferrell/Judd Apatow material because they arrive at it gradually.  Yes, the transformations of Duncan and Charlie are more of a reveal while Jason’s maturity comes over the course of the film, but it’s not from an “A-ha!” moment.  The characters find it on their own and that makes for a highly rewarding story and payoff.

the_mystery_team_movie_image__1_.jpgIf there’s any negative in the film other than my problem about the transformations, is that the third act is a tad rough.  The first two acts has the Mystery Team as a team and it feels more like an ensemble piece.  However, in the third act, Glover steps into the spotlight and while he was clearly the leader of the three as well as the best detective for the first two acts, without Pierson and Dierkes to play off of, the film becomes a bit heavy and it has a little trouble regaining its footing but does manage to reassert itself in the end.

Director Dan Eckman has done an outstanding job with his directorial feature debut.  There’s a real confidence on screen and he knows when to shoot the film with happy sunshine to highlight the comedy of such joyful characters running up against real, mature adults and he knows when to shoot the film as a dark, gritty noir.  It’s really a mastery of juxtaposition and understanding how to delivery the best comedy from such bizarre and humorous dichotomies.  And yes, I just used the terms “juxtaposition” and “dichotomies” in writing about a film where a character drinks dog pee in order to cure himself of smelling like poop.

Not to keep heaping praise on Eckman, but I also have to give him credit for the film’s pacing (he also served as the film’s editor).  When I spoke with him after the film, I wondered if because of their incredibly tight budget that if everything they shot was on screen. Surprisingly, he told me there are about twenty-two minutes of deleted scenes and the cut I saw was around ten minutes shorter than the version which debuted at Sundance.  There are some indie directors who, when faced with the limitations of their budget and the grandiosity of their vision, will throw everything into their movie and refuse to understand how it plays.  “Mystery Team” runs at a brisk 94 minutes and the film never feels like it was grinding through or stumbling to find its way.

Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t congratulate Glover, Pierson, and Dierkes for their work but it feels like stating the obvious.  If you’ve seen any of DERRICK’s sketches online, you know that they completely understand character and comic timing (again, credit to Eckman for trusting his actors and letting them play scenes to get the most laughs possible).  As I mentioned before, Glover is really the film’s star and gets to show off the most range since Duncan and Charlie drop out of the film for a little while in the third act, but Pierson and Dierkes do get their sweet moments when they’re just not being silly adolescents.

I’m very hopeful for the future of DERRICK comedy.  They’ve done the opposite of what “The Whitest Kids U Know” tried earlier this year with “Miss March”.  Don’t get me wrong: I love the “Whitest Kids” crew, their comedy, and I have their show set to record on my DVR.  But if they wanted to break-through into the mainstreathe_mystery_team_movie_image__2_.jpgm (and “Miss March” clearly is an attempt to do that, at least for Trevor Moore and Zach Cregger), they should have started small, gone indie, and utilized all five members of the troup (“Miss March” doesn’t even feature so much as a cameo from “Whitest Kids” co-members Sam Brown, Darren Trumeter, and Timmy Williams).  “Mystery Team” feel like a cohesive whole from a devoted and committed troupe.  There are even small roles from comedians that fans will recognize like Bobby Moynahan (currently of “SNL” fame and featured in one of the group’s most popular sketches, “Bro Rape”) and the charming comedienne who was in “Blowjob Girl” and as soon as I can find out her name I’ll update this review [UPDATE!  Her name is Ellie Walker and she’s great in everything].  Fans will appreciate how the group has remained true to itself but it’s in no way alienating to the many viewers who will come to this film having only seen the trailer.  Those people will then rush home and watch all of DERRICK comedy’s sketches on their website.

Just remember: you and I were already a huge fans.

“Mystery Team” will hit theatres this fall.  If you’re attending the 2009 San Diego Comic-Con on Sunday, July 25th, you should definitely go to their panel where Glover, Pierson, Dierkes, McFadden, and Eckman will be in attendance at 1:00pm to 1:30pm in Ballroom 20.  Not only is there really not much going on for Sunday, but I imagine the panel will be highly informative and entertaining and the group is great to talk to as I discovered after I spoke with each of them after the screening. I forgot to mention that after the screening on Thursday night, where not only was there a huge line to get in (and yeah, I’m sure there were huge lines for the screenings of “District 9″ and “Ninja Assassin” also had lots of folks lining up but “Mystery Team” has nowhere near the amount of marketing money those films have; this was a grass-roots campaign largely based on their online work and word-of-mouth) and at the end of the screening they invited anyone to come up to the front of the theatre and grab a poster which they would then sign.  So many people came up that all of the group’s Sharpies ran out of ink from so much singing.

Also, I should probably mention that yes, the members of DERRICK read the site.  Doesn’t change that I laughed more often and harder at “Mystery Team” than any other movie I’ve seen this year.  All it means is they have great taste in online movie sites.

Rating: A minus

*I should have gotten this guy’s name after the screening so I could attribute the quote to him but I had trouble getting up from my seat because my sides were still hurting from laughing so much.

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