The Most Beautiful Fraud: Mystery Team
The mid- and late 2000s were an especially rich time for the comedy of failure. Perhaps it was the fact that we’d suffered a blow to our sense of national invulnerability that led us to elect a shit-talking faux-cowboy millionaire who reintroduced us to the concept of a pointless war we couldn’t get out of; perhaps it was just the fact that a new generation of young creatives was getting just old enough to learn about defeat. But everywhere you looked, clever people were mining comedy gold out of the idea that everybody grows up and has to settle for things that they’d have considered unthinkable when they were younger and full of promise; the sense of wonder curdled and turned into, if not despair, at least a good-natured resignation. The Office tried to find coping strategies for people locked into corporate jobs that weren’t so bad that they left you impoverished, but would never be so good that they’d point the way out of the daily grind; The Venture Bros. did wonderful work asking what happened to the thrilling boy adventurers of our nostalgic youth when they grew up and had to deal with stuff like bureaucracy, belittlement, and boredom.
The 2009 comedy Mystery Team is perfectly in this vein, the sagging wheelhouse of a promising Little League prospect who just can’t hack it anymore but keeps suiting up for the games. Produced by and starring the members of the Derrick Comedy sketch group, a UCB-adjacent outfit that formed at New York University and made some noise in the wild days of the funny-video internet, Mystery Team finds the titular trio at a critical juncture in its career (such as it is). The Mystery Team — leader and “master of disguise” Jason Rogers (Donald Glover), “boy genius” Duncan Wheeler (DC Pierson), and strongman Charlie Day (Dominic Dierkes) — was originally a troupe of pre-adolescent detectives, using their enthusiasm and precociousness to ‘solve’ crimes on the level of stolen pies, missing pets, and minor vandalism. They charmed their New Hampshire town and became local celebrities, but that was years ago, and time has not been kind: they’re now seniors in high school and most people, their parents included, look at them more as laughing stocks than scrappy heroes.
Enter newcomer Brianna (Daphne Ciccarelle), whose parents have just been brutally murdered. What better way to prove themselves and restore them to their former status, Jason reckons, than to tackle the most grown-up crime of all? Brianna’s older sister, Kelly (Aubrey Plaza), wants none of it, and looks at the Mystery Team as something between pathetic and demented, but of course, there’s no stopping a determined young idiot, and after several life-threatening encounters, a trip to a strip club, and a not-insignificant crisis of faith, the murder is indeed solved, and the Mystery Team rides again (though to where is a question left open). It’s a surprisingly tight 90 minutes of low comedy, and while it wasn’t a big commercial success, watching it today (it recently arrived on streaming service Hulu after a long exile), it’s surprisingly breezy, fun, and light — the exact kind of movie that people talk about when they say they don’t always seek it out, but they’ll watch it whenever they happen to see it on TV.
It seems pretty odd to describe a movie in which someone reaches into a toilet recently befouled by a stripper to retrieve a lost ring as ‘breezy’, but there’s a weird gentleness to Mystery Team, a sense that, whatever its commercial prospects, its creators had a hell of a good time making it; in that sense, it’s a close relative to Wet Hot American Summer. Like that cult classic, the making of Mystery Team was apparently quite a trial, done on a shoestring budget with very little in the way of resources, and it shows. It has that abandoned look that comes with not being able to afford extras, and there are technical problems that wouldn’t have shown up in a better-financed movie as well as some rocky patches in the script that would have benefited from revision if there had been time. But it’s also surprisingly well-directed (by Derrick Comedy fourth man Dan Eckman); some of the shots, especially at the beginning and during the team’s big dramatic meltdown, are quite lovely and unexpected.
Mystery Team is also a damn funny movie, which is the only reason people are watching it, after all. It’s a bit startling how well a movie about the failure of adulthood to live up to the promises of youth resonates considering that it was written by five people barely in their mid-20s, but it perfectly captures the yawning chasm between what you can get away with when you’re a cute kid and what plays when you’re an annoying teenager. Watching the Mystery Team, with their imperfect understanding of grown-up sexuality, attempt to maneuver their way into a strip club dressed like Monopoly men, is utterly hilarious, as is an attempt to buy cocaine with almost no knowledge of what it is. (One of the best ongoing gags is Jason’s collision with the ugly realities of violence and danger, mere abstractions when he was a boy but deadly serious now; this dichotomy also comes through in a priceless scene where he gets drunk for the first time.)
For all its sophistication in terms of theme, Mystery Team is hardly a highbrow comedy; it’s simply a funny movie made on the cheap that displays a lot more ambition than it should. But it’s frequently hilarious, occasionally moving, and stuffed with amusing cameos (including Matt Wash and John Lutz as corporate functionaries, Bobby Moynihan as a cautionary tale about what really happens when you make your childhood fantasies come true, and Ellie Kemper as a Mystery Team client whose enthusiasm stems less from naïveté and more from brain damage). It’s a movie about how hope doesn’t always pay off, but when it does, it can be a beautiful thing; and that’s as good a lesson as anyone could take away from the comedy of failure.