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Weekly Alibi Hockey or Hokey?

By Devin D. O'Leary

OCTOBER 4, 1999:  In the tiny town of Mystery, Alaska, hockey has been raised to a form of religious ritual. Every Saturday afternoon, for as long as anyone can remember, a select group of men chosen by wise town elders strap on their skates, split up into teams and do battle on the nearest frozen pond. This is more than a friendly weekend game, this is an honor. Being chosen for the team is like being elevated to godhood. Getting cut from the team is like being banished from society. So what happens when these gods among men are forced to test their mettle against the infamous New York Rangers? That's the melodramatic premise for Mystery, Alaska.

Mystery, Alaska is the newest film from prolific producer/writer David E. Kelley. Kelley is best known for his TV work ("Picket Fences," "Chicago Hope," "Ally McBeal"), but has made several attempts at cracking the feature film market (the sentimental To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday and the schlocky Lake Placid).

Made up of a largely ensemble cast, Mystery, Alaska tries to capture some of Kelley's old "Picket Fences" magic. Not only do we have a small town loaded with quirky characters, but our main focus seems to fall on the town's sheriff (Aussie Russell Crowe subbing for Tom Skeritt of "Picket Fences" as laconic lawman). Crowe plays John Biebe, who -- in addition to being sheriff -- is the hockey team's 13-year backbone. When the town elders decide he's getting a little long in the tooth, though, they replace Biebe with an up-and-coming high school kid. Biebe's ensuing bout of sulking is Mystery, Alaska's first hint of decidedly mellow drama.

Just as Biebe is stripped of his holy skates, an article in Sports Illustrated profiling the weekend warriors and written by one of Mystery's former sons catches the attention of the National Hockey League. Before long, the article's author, Charles Danner (Hank Azaria in full smug mode), returns to his wintry hometown to bask in the glory of literary fame and to deliver a proposal to the citizens of Mystery -- stage an exhibition game with the New York Rangers and the town will be spotlighted on nationwide television. Oddly enough, few people want to engage in the David vs. Goliath match-up. First of all, everyone in town hates Danner, despite the attention he's given the tiny burg. (He's a jerk, he had the temerity to leave town and worst of all he "skates like a girl"). Secondly, the Mystery players seem to feel there's more noble glory in battling each other ad nauseam than there is in, say, actually going up against another team. Eventually, in full Music Man fashion, the townsfolk are talked into the confrontation for all the wrong reasons. (Think of the tourists this stunt will bring in!)

Of course, the team will now require a coach, a position that is naturally offered to the recently ousted Sheriff Biebe. Biebe reluctantly accepts, feeling that coaching is best left to those who can't play the game. Any viewer who guesses that a conveniently injured player will result in Biebe's return to the rink before movie's end gets no credit for uncanny insight.

Since the film's entire run time can't be taken up with hockey-related action, we're required to spend a good deal of time with the assorted players and to experience their various minor dramas. Kelley's script throws heaping buckets of hokum at the screen in hopes that something will stick. The sheriff fears he's losing his wife to his former high school rival. The mayor discovers his wife is philandering on him with the town Romeo. The judge is too hard-hearted to tell his son he really wuvs him. A teenage couple battle the heartbreak of premature ejaculation. Oh, how will these assorted crises ever resolve themselves? Easily is the answer, and often without a whit of actual dramatic insight. This is the kind of film where every single problem will wrap up with a smile and a wink at the end of the heavily symbolic (and naturally climactic) sporting event.

It isn't until the film's final 20 minutes, however, that we actually arrive at the much-presaged sporting event and get to start rooting for Rocky ... I mean, the Mystery hockey team.

Of course, it's far too easy to snag audience sympathies with an athletic competition. It's almost cheating. Audiences are conditioned to cheer for the underdogs and to let out loud hoots of joy whenever a ball, puck, or race horse passes through a hoop, goal or finish line. That doesn't mean there's actually a good movie happening anywhere on screen. There are only two outcomes to a sporting event -- win or lose -- and the dramatic possibilities are therefore rather limited. I won't give away the final outcome of Mystery, Alaska's ultimate competition, but ... Rocky.

As amply demonstrated in Lake Placid, David Kelley finds curse words as screamingly funny as the average 11-year-old does. As a result, much of Mystery, Alaska's humor revolves around streams of "creative" swear words, usually melding a choice body part with a select bodily function. Director Jay Roach (hot off his double shot of Austin Powers movies) tones down his frenetic improvisation style just to prove he's got a sappy drama in him somewhere. The end result is a hoary sports drama that will milk a few easy tears 'n' cheers from undemanding audiences, but should soon melt from memory like a late winter snow.

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