Snail’s Pace Skating: ‘Mystery, Alaska’ Review

Posted in Screening Room by - March 31, 2017
Snail’s Pace Skating: ‘Mystery, Alaska’ Review

By far the most interesting film I’ve seen this month, Mystery, Alaska is just a few script edits away from being an instant cult classic of sports dramedy. It’s unfortunate, however, that it so narrowly, yet dramatically, misses that target. Which is a shame because although I quite liked the film, I can’t recommend that anyone urgently watch it because quite simply, there’s both too much, and not enough going on.

Then again, I suppose that’s not simple at all.

Set (shockingly) in the small, isolated town of Mystery Alaska, the film opens by giving us a glimpse into the quiet, homely life of its inhabitants with shots of men futilely shoveling ceaseless snow and husbands kissing their wife and child goodbye as they go off to work. In the town of Mystery, the local Saturday hockey game is what binds the community together. Featuring a mix of beefy veteran players and speedy teenage aces, the town’s hockey team is surprisingly exceptional at the game. So much so that a former resident of the town (Hank Azaria) writes to Sports Illustrated about how incredible the players are and soon enough, a major sports network organizes an exhibition match between Mystery and the New York Rangers.

Outlandish as the plot may be, the film does its best to sell you on the idea that this sort of thing could really happen. In fact, they do it well enough that the lynchpin for the film’s entire premise is a total non-issue in the context of the film’s other flaws. The town of Mystery feels authentic and welcoming, it’s a cozy sort of community and that wholesome feeling carries throughout most of the film. In addition to some excellent moments of hilarity, the film’s strongest selling point is how genuine Mystery feels as a town and, as a place to live and grow up.

In trying to flesh out the town completely, famous writer-producer turned film screenwriter David E. Kelley attempts to juggle 4 or 5 character plot lines at once. Though certainly manageable, there’s an immense amount going on with everyone that it feels bloated and tedious to get through. As someone who loves the emotional value of “big game” endings to sports movies, Mystery, Alaska’s comes much too late to make up for the dialogue slog that is the rest of the film.

Take the character of Judge Burns for example (portrayed by the immensely talented Burt Reynolds). Not only does he tackle issues as the town’s local judge, but he’s also a former hockey coach who has to return to the job in lieu of the upcoming game. If that weren’t enough, he’s also a strict father who wrestles with disciplining his adventurous daughter. Finally, his overall character arc involves him developing from a typical, grouchy spoilsport into someone who learns to have fun again with the rest of the town.

Now, remember, Burns isn’t even the main character. His storyline certainly is the most loaded of the several that rotate throughout the film however, and it definitely feels like that when watching it. In addition to Burns, you have Russell Crowe as the town’s once-great hockey star and current sheriff struggling with the return of his wife (Mary McCormack)’s now-successful ex and, a young hockey phenom (Ryan Northcutt) dealing with being the center of the team’s success while also trying to maintain a budding relationship with his girlfriend (Rachel Wilson) who is also Judge Burns’ daughter. Sports films always have trouble with properly exploring individual characters and their development, but that’s usually in regards to the team members – y’know, the ones actually playing the game that the film is all about. Aside from a few conflicts with overbearing parent figures and harsh coaches, sports movies don’t generally bloat the film with a massive supporting cast like Mystery, Alaska does.

But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. If anything, plot exploration is something the sports movie genre desperately needs to eschew the time-worn cliches they tend to succumb to. Mystery, Alaska has, unfortunately, taken that exploration a tad too far and too deep. Almost all the characters are interesting and relatable in some way, their own conflicts are compelling, and the town’s overall excited attitude towards the upcoming game is the perfect catalyst for hilarious hijinks. With a tighter script, more time on the ice, and a grander conflict involving the whole town – or at least one that matters more than just the individual ones – Mystery, Alaska would be an excellent film. As it stands, it’s simply middling and on the verge of subversive greatness. If you’re in the mood for something unconventional and you don’t mind a bit of a drag in your movies, by all means, check it out.

This post was written by
When not drowning in school work or ignoring social obligations he enjoys watching movies on just about anything. Currently making his way through the cinema classics he hopes to one day write a novel, but he’ll probably end up playing The Witcher 3 instead.
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