Jay Roach, who struck gold in his directing debut with Austin Powers, and then platinum with the sequel, comes up empty with Mystery, Alaska, an unintentionally funny movie set in a remote mountain town. (The picture was actually shot in Alberta, Canada.) To be fair, Roach did not have much to work with. The gifted and prolific writer/producer David E. Kelley ('Ally McBeal,' 'The Practice') and co-writer Sean O'Byrne fail to provide compelling characters or an engrossing plot, settling instead for a formulaic David-and-Goliath sports movie interlaced with tiresome marital squabbles and a standard father/son conflict. It's giving nothing away to report that all these problems magically resolve themselves after the climactic game between the local team and the New York Rangers.
The cast, however, applies itself with such conviction, that one wishes the result had been worth the effort. As John Biebe, Mystery's sheriff and veteran hockey player, Russell Crowe (L.A. Confidential), looking ruggedly handsome with longish hair and a close-cropped beard, projects a smoldering intensity worthy of an Ingmar Bergman film. When told that he will be cut from Mystery's locally prestigious Saturday hockey game, his modulated despair almost saves the scene from portentousness. But the film demands that an audience take amateur hockey as seriously as its fictional town, which is very seriously indeed. In a graveside eulogy, no less, Biebe tells it like it is: 'We're a hockey town.'
It is a lot easier to accept a bunch of kids' fanatical commitment to their team than the aging pillars of the community to theirs. Imagine 'Northern Exposure' meeting The Mighty Ducks, minus the wit of the former, and the youth of the latter. When the town claps after the big game, one almost longs for quacks.
The Rangers grudgingly helicopter in to Mystery as a publicity stunt after a Sports Illustrated article profiling the town's hockey players suggests they are NHL material. Charles Danner (Hank Azaria), the prodigal non-hockey-playing son who wrote the article, returns to Mystery to broker the deal and flirt with his old high-school girlfriend, Donna (Mary McCormack), Sheriff Biebe's wife. Although everyone else sees him as the spineless manipulator that he is, Donna is flattered by the attention and incurs Biebe's jealousy.
The picture's stab at suspense pits the town's lovable chubby lawyer, Bailey Pruitt (Maury Chaykin), against the NHL when the pros try pulling out of the deal. Not wasting any effort with shades of gray, the scene shows Pruitt suffering a heart attack as he pounds his chest, telling the judge, 'It's not a matter of money, it's a matter of heart.' Puh-lease!
Burt Reynolds, far more appealing as a porn auteur in Boogie Nights, plays white-haired Judge Walter Burns with a loathsome heaviness. He seems to have taken his character's nickname, Old Bear, literally. He growls at his wife and especially his son, whom he accuses of 'skating like a figure skater.' When Biebe finally coaxes him to take over the reins of the Mystery team, he softens considerably, but by then one would rather see him whacked over the head with a shovel like the team's clueless Lothario, Skank (Ron Eldard).
An all-too-brief high point is Mike Myers' cameo as a jaded sports announcer named Donnie Shulzhoffer. Wearing a curly brown wig and a fake nose, Myers projects an authenticity this film sorely lacks. And for a change, we are meant to laugh.