Tuesday, October 20, 2009

NHFF: Mystery Team (2009) A Film by Dan Eckman

If you are anywhere between the ages of 16 and 24, you have most likely heard of the sketch comedy group "Derrick Comedy". They're a trio of NYU students - Dominic Dierkes, Donald Glover, DC Pierson - that have earned an avid following on YouTube with their sometimes amusing, sometimes lackluster breed of vulgar short comedy, the most celebrated being a tidbit called Bro Rape, a playful stab at "bro" culture. Recently the group completed their first feature with the help of director Dan Eckman, a highly tongue-in-cheek detective comedy called Mystery Team. Suspicions immediately arose on my part, namely how the team would not only translate their crude visuals to cinema but break free from their narrative comfort zone too, substituting a feature-length format for the brief sketch. Surprisingly, it turns out Mystery Team flows from beginning to end without much hesitance, telling a coherent and complete story; not so surprising though is that the parts are greater than the whole.

One of the big reasons why is because although there is larger plot at work, Mystery Team, like many of today's comedies, is consciously structured like a series of self-contained shorts. The film opens in the middle of one of The Mystery Team's detective tasks, with Jason (Glover) performing a typically clumsy personality swap (complete with a blatantly fake mustache) to distract a homeowner while his two comrades, Duncan (Pierson) and Charlie (Dierkes) slip in through the upstairs window. This scene provides little narrative information, but instead propels us headlong into hammy gags that stand on their own. We soon learn that the opening mission is just one in a laundry list of banal, unimportant missions that constitute the agenda of "The Mystery Team", an overly childish pursuit for the high-school seniors that requires they maintain a wooden cart on their front lawn boasting their unique credo: no case too hard, no case too tough. (Surely this is stupid stuff, but it tends to be at its best when it's at its most stupid.) Granted, the friends are dealing over-emphatically with measly tasks that are the equivalent of who stole the cookie from the cookie jar. When they are approached one day by a young girl who requests that her parent's murderer be found, their genuine shock eventually gives way to excitement: this is indeed a real case.

Of course, The Mystery Team is not suited to real cases, but they foolhardily pursue it anyway, nearly losing their lives several times in the process. The pains they go through in solving the mystery - purchasing from a junkie, fleeing a gentleman's club bouncer, participating in a gun-chase in the woods - all have the feel of autonomous shorts, and could very well be included on their YouTube channel as individual pieces were it not for the context they are carried with as result of being within a story. These hurdles also ultimately drive the threesome apart towards the end, a fussy split that resolves itself in Superbad-like bromance. In fact, the whole film shares similarities with Greg Mottola's 2007 comedy, especially in the three central characters, two of which reveal their unsettling college plans to the third unknowing counterpart. Ultimately, Mystery Team departs from Superbad in its fundamental comic delivery; whereas the latter attempts to mirror high-school reality, the former is decidedly set in a bubble-gum universe where everything is in soft-focus and all of the jokes are delivered with blunt histrionics. At first this comes across as highly amateur, as if the troupe could not fully harness the spontaneity that should be the end result of screenwriting. As time passes though, the deliberate artificiality appears to reinforce the general silliness of the conceit, one that doesn't sound too far off from Nickelodeon. Nickelodeon with boners and cocaine, that is.

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