Before he was, famously, a lawyer or a maniacally prolific creator and writer of television dramas, David E. Kelley, son of ex-Hartford Whalers coach Jack Kelley, was, famously, captain of his hockey team at Princeton. Now, two decades after graduating, Kelley indulges that puckish love as writer (with Sean O’Byrne) and producer (with former NHL team owner Howard Baldwin) of Mystery, Alaska, a good-hearted but utterly — almost ritualistically — formulaic sports movie. Indeed, the enterprise might also be called Picket Fences on Ice, so familiar is it in population (lovable-eccentric), tone (kooky-warm), and pedagogical value (average folks are even more heroic than rich and famous folks).
The average folks in this snowy town are mad for the traditional Saturday game, in which the hardworking men of Mystery — each cloned from David E. Kelley Productions DNA and stray genetic strands of Northern Exposure — play with a skill equal to that of any pro outfit. The heart of the team is a decent, stable, Pickety Jimmy Brock-like sheriff (rock-solid Russell Crowe), married to the Jill Brock-like mother of his sons (Mary McCormack); commenting from the sidelines are a crusty Henry Bone-like judge (Burt Reynolds) and a colorful Douglas Wambaugh-like attorney (Maury Chaykin) who, instead of being comically Jewish, is comically fat.
The weekly game gains notoriety after a native son shallow enough to leave home (Hank Azaria) writes about it in a national magazine. Before long the New York Rangers are flying in for a publicity-stunt showdown, puffed up with celebrity and bad manners. This, in turn, brings on bouts of soul-searching, despair, anger, team spirit, personal achievement, and unchecked whimsy on the part of Mystery players and spectators alike, all of whom would do well to rent Slap Shot on video to watch a hockey movie at its smoothest. Sample pep talk: ”You know what you’re made of! You know what ya got inside!” Dang, yes!
Amid the bromides and the stunts (Mike Myers and Little Richard make cameo appearances), moments of exhilaration at the beauty of the game or empathy with individual crises in Mystery, Alaska are few. But that they occur at all is a credit to director Jay Roach, known for his two Austin Powers hits, who serves as a kind of goalie here, saving Kelley’s exhibition game from becoming a total rout.