Azaria, Macy and Stiller try to save Champion City.
Azaria, Macy and Stiller try to save Champion City.

Hysterical Heroes

In the highly competitive, dog-eat-dog world of the modern-day superhero, the members of the group that eventually becomes known as the Mystery Men — they don't really have a name through most of the movie — start out with a couple of strikes against them.

First off, there's the little matter of superpowers: They don't have 'em. Or let's say that the status of their powers as super, as compared to someone like, say, Superman, who can fly, has X-ray vision and can bounce bullets off his chest, are at best a little iffy.

Take Eddie, a.k.a. the Shoveler (William H. Macy), for example. Eddie can shovel up a storm, but as his loving wife keeps telling him, being a good shoveler doesn't necessarily make you a superhero. Then there's the Blue Raja (Hank Azaria), whose real name is Jeffrey and who still lives at home with his mother. Granted, Jeffrey can toss cutlery with near unrivaled ability and do a ripping impersonation of an upper-crust Brit. However, very few of your contemporary evil geniuses can be brought down by a well-thrown salad fork. (Jeffrey eschews the throwing of knives on the grounds that they are too obvious.)

Which brings us to Mr. Furious, the last of the core group, whose name in the real world is Roy and who possesses the ability to become very, very angry. Enraged, one might say. Pissed. You look at Mr. Furious the wrong way, and he will go thermonuclear on your ass. In the abstract, this may seem intimidating, but after people learn that Mr. Furious's powers are largely rhetorical — that is, he possesses neither superstrength, superspeed nor any other tiny superthing out of the ordinary — they have a tendency to beat the utter crap out of him.

In fact, this is pretty much what occurs whenever our heroes have the misfortune of running across a crime in progress. Fortunately, they don't often run across much in the way of wrongdoing. Thanks to the efforts of Captain Amazing (Greg Kinnear) — as it happens he's a bona fide superhero — Champion City, where the movie is set, is nearly 100 percent devoid of crime of any sort. This is beginning to pose quite a problem for the frustrated Captain. Sure, he has received his due for ridding the metropolis of such fiendish masters of crime as Apocalyptica and Casanova Frankenstein, enabling him to secure endorsement deals with most of Champion City's leading companies. (His uniform is covered, racecar-driver-style, with corporate patches.) But with most of the big-name bad guys behind bars, Amazing's name isn't in the newspaper so much anymore, causing a few of his sponsors to withdraw their endorsements.

If he's anything, Kinnear's hilariously vain do-gooder is a man of action. Rather than wait around until he loses one of his really big endorsements, he whips up a plan to arrange for his archnemesis, Casanova Frankenstein (Geoffrey Rush), to be released from the nuthouse. That can bring about a mano a mano guaranteed to generate the banner headlines needed for Captain Amazing's sagging career.

If all of this strikes you as too clever by half, it's not, mainly because of the easygoing skills of the performers. Director Kinka Usher doesn't ask his actors to send up their roles, but to play it straight — to present their innocent desire to do good with utter sincerity so that their squareness begins to look like the ultimate form of hip. The result is that the movie seems almost loving toward its characters, so much so that we can't help but fall for this gang of losers.

While Captain Amazing is busy setting up his plot, our merry band of underachievers decide to hold auditions to see if they can bolster the group. Almost immediately, a promising recruit named The Spleen steps forward. Played by Paul Reubens, with a face full of supperating zits, his power, if you will, is that he is capable of manufacturing within himself stink bombs so lethally putrid as to incapacitate anyone within breathing range. You could say that he had a certain Pepe Le Pew quality, but no mere cartoon was ever soŠ unclean.

Thankfully, we have Janeane Garofalo on hand to distract us. She shows up as The Bowler, carrying a bowling bag containing a ball with the skull of her dead father inside. Even in scenes where she is upstaged by the ball, she continues to effortlessly steal the picture right out from under everyone else.

Garofalo is partnered well with Ben Stiller, whom many people tend to loathe but who possesses a deft sense of comic timing. Macy is his usual consistent self, and it is fun watching Kinnear reveal the superior, self-serving prick hidden within every superhero utterance. Still, the funniest moment is when Azaria explains why his superhero character's name is the Blue Raja, despite having a costume without the slightest trace of blue.

The only disappointments in the cast are Rush and Claire Forlani, who hasn't yet snapped out of the trance she fell into while starring opposite Brad Pitt as Death in Meet Joe Black.

Usher comes to feature filmmaking from commercials and doesn't much express himself one way or the other throughout the film. What he does especially well is stay out of the way of his actors. He also hasn't allowed the guys in charge of special effects to take over. As a result, the picture remains a comedy, and not a pageant of effects with jokes sprinkled over.

Mystery Men. Directed by Kinka Usher. With Greg Kinnear, Hank Azaria, William H. Macy, Ben Stiller, Janeane Garofalo and Paul Reubens. Rated PG-13.


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