Whaddaya know? I went to a hockey movie, and a story broke out. Yeah, Mystery, Alaska is a rather standard piece of David E. Kelley calculated quirkiness (Kelley cowrote with Sean O’Byrne), but except for one detour into melodrama and a one-liner that is appallingly awful in every possible way, this gently funny and surprisingly touching film manages to transcend its many clichés.
Mystery, Alaska, is a town obsessed with hockey. From preschool boys to grown men, there’s hardly a male in the tiny town who doesn’t practically live on ice skates. Their holy grail is to be chosen — by a special committee that meets for this one and only purpose — to play in the ritualistic Saturday afternoon game, in which the town’s best players team off against one another. The townspeople turn out with religious devotion to watch the game, turning the players into local superstars.
John Biebe (Russell Crowe: L.A. Confidential, scruffily handsome here), the town sheriff, has been playing in the Saturday game for 13 years. Now, though, he’s on the outs, replaced by hotshot high schooler Stevie Weeks (Ryan Northcott, who looks like a very young Alec Baldwin). That may change, though — an article in Sports Illustrated by a hometown boy who escaped to New York spotlights the Mystery players, declaring that they “rival any team in the National Hockey League.” That gauntlet is picked up by the New York Rangers, which challenges the Mystery team to an exhibition match. The Mystery team — John’s wife, Donna (Mary McCormack: True Crime), assures him — can’t possible play a pro team without its strongest player.
Instead of remaining a simple tale of the majesty of a game and one man’s love for it, Mystery, Alaska becomes less a movie about hockey than about the big bad outside world intruding on small-town America. Returning to Mystery as the standard bearer of the media circus to come is the SI journalist who started it all, Charles Danner (Hank Azaria: Mystery Men, Celebrity — Azaria is billed, with Crowe, above the film’s title, and hoorah for both these underutilized and underappreciated actors). Charlie is “a bit of a prick” who “can’t even skate” (high insult here), a stand-in for all things ugly and urban who upsets a lot of frozen apple carts in Mystery. Throw in a subplot about a Wal-Mart-type store looking to move into the town, and you’ve got pretty stock stuff here.
It’s as if David E. Kelley — who might have tossed off this script on his lunch break in between writing episodes of The Practice and Ally McBeal — tried his damnedest to come up with a hackneyed, sticky-sweet paean to family and small-town life, but, delightfully, the director, Jay Roach (Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me), and the fabulous cast refuse to let Kelley get away with that. Crowe, an Australian (do they even play hockey in Australia?), is utterly convincing as a man for whom hockey is life without ever making us feel that John is harboring anything but a healthy passion for the game. But Crowe is even better in the interplay with his wife — Donna and Charlie were once a couple, and his reappearance on the scene along with her overt friendliness with him pushes John into an inarticulate jealousy that resolves itself eventually with a similarly inarticulate sweetness. And Azaria is wonderful as a man torn between two worlds, refusing to let Charlie be the one-dimensional “prick” Kelley probably envisioned him as.
So by the time Mystery, Alaska got to that game with the Rangers, I found myself literally at the edge of my seat, having to restrain myself from actually cheering aloud for the Mystery boys — and I’m a Rangers fan. “This is great hockey!” cries the announcer calling the game for an ESPN-type network, and it is.
I laughed, I cried, it moved me. Who’da thunk?