Directed by Dan Eckman. Starring D.C. Pierson, Donald Glover, Dominic Dierkes, Aubrey Plaza, Bobby Moynihan, Nick Packard, Matt Walsh. (2009, R, 105 min.)
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., Aug. 28, 2009
What if Harriet the Spy never hung up the magnifying glass for more adolescent concerns? What if Encyclopedia Brown made it to 18 without ever making it to first base with a girl? They’d fit right in with the Mystery Team, a trio of high school seniors in a state of arrested development. Each boy clings to the same character established when he started out as a 7-year-old sleuth: Team leader Jason (Glover) is the "master of disguise,” who sticks out like a sore thumb in his ludicrous, anachronistic costumings (a rail-riding hobo, a Mexican plumber in poncho and sombrero, a top-hatted aristocrat trying to gain entry into a “gentlemen’s club”); Duncan (Pierson), the boy genius, whose breadth of knowledge begins and ends with what he learned from a dog-eared copy of 1,001 Wacky Facts; and skinny, daft Charlie (Dierkes), who provides the brawn, presumably because the brains are so scrambled. But what was once cute in moppeted 7-year-olds is now deemed deeply weird – even Jason’s father shakes his head at the threesome on their matching, primary-colored bicycles: “There goes three virgins.” When a double homicide goes down in their quiet New Hampshire community, the Mystery Team spies a chance to regain lost glory. Mystery Team was written, directed, produced, and performed by members of Derrick Comedy, a five-person comedy troupe whose Web shorts have netted a million hits. (Troupe members also have day jobs with the Upright Citizens Brigade and 30 Rock, which makes for several fun cameos.) The transition from short form to long can be a rocky one – witness almost every SNL skit that’s been bullied into feature length – but Mystery Team proves remarkably sustainable. For all its homespun charm, this is a professionally put together film, with a fluid, roving camera and sharp picture quality that are testaments to how far digital video has progressed. And the filmmakers have sidestepped the sight-gag set-piece trap, opting instead for plot-driven humor; surprisingly, the central goof – that these boys are clueless and wholesome in a world that is cynical and foul-mouthed – never wears thin. But it doesn’t blossom on second viewing, either. Mystery Team is a chuckler, with only the occasional full-throated laugh, as when Duncan, looking like the bastard child of Harry Potter and Napoleon Dynamite, leaves behind the Little League expletives of “Chinese checkers!” for the Major League of four-letter words. The twentysomething talents behind Mystery Team are still in the comedy minors, but this nerdy, nutty, perfectly pitched first swing suggests there are major things to come.