In point of fact, originally I paired Mystery Team up with Safety Not Guaranteed on my Netflix queue because each one stars a (former) performer from a different (former) NBC Thursday night sitcom. Mystery Team is anchored by Donald Glover, aka Troy from Community, and Safety Not Guaranteed features Aubrey Plaza in a leading role. I had no idea that Plaza was in both movies, I just wanted a comedy double-feature to tide me over during the summer rerun season (which actually isn’t even rerun season nowadays, just the cheap-programming of American Ninja Warrior and whatnot, which I’m not necessarily against per se, but that’s neither here nor there) and figured there were worse ways to go than invoking trusted names from my own appointment television.
At any rate, Mystery Team in and of itself is a cup runneth over with familiar faces from recent NBC Thursday line-ups. In addition to Glover and Plaza, there are cameos from Kevin Brown (Walter “Dot Com” Slattery from 30 Rock), John Lutz (Lutz himself, also from 30 Rock), Ellie Kemper (Erin from The Office), and Matt Walsh (who played Joshua the racist neo-Nazi groundskeeper in the Secret Garden episode of Community). If I’m going to lump in Walsh, I might as well also mention that the two other comedians who comprise the titular trio, Dominic Dierkes and DC Pierson, have also cameo’ed on Community. But really, all-for-one ethos of the Mystery Team and equal co-writing credit for the Derrick Comedy troupe notwithstanding, it’s Glover’s movie, and it’s pretty much 90 minutes of his sheltered man-child Troy Barnes schtick, turned up a bit more ludicrously and set against a much less accommodating backdrop than the campus of Greendale.
Unfortunately, that’s more or less the film’s undoing, as it turns out. The basic pitch of the movie is this: imagine if you took three characters based on kid detective archetypes, aged them physically but not mentally, and then put them in the “real” world trying to solve an actual crime. In practice, what that means is instead of getting Troy Barnes, slightly sheltered and more comfortable being a big fish in the small pond of high school than in the quasi-adult world of a wacky community college, you get Jason Rogers, inexplicably stunted and totally at odds with the prevailing sensibilities of everything around him. On Community, there’s a slight tension between characters’ perceptions and reality which creates most of the humor. In Mystery Team, there’s just a complete disconnect that never gets explained and never makes any sense.
I used to love Encyclopedia Brown stories when I was a kid, so I was certainly on board with the idea of a trio of past-their-prime Encyclopedia Brown wannabes. And I further liked the idea that the pint-sized private investigators were never even as good at their vocation as their fictional predecessors: Jason claims to be “master of disguise” but really just loves fake mustaches and bad ethnic accents (and to be fair, Glover’s total commitment to that recurring bit gave me a few chuckles, more than the rest of the movie put together); Duncan deems himself a “boy genius” but really just memorized one book of wacky facts in second grade; and Charlie believes he is the “strongest boy in town” but is nothing of the sort, though he is exactly as dumb as a bag of hammers as you would expect the team muscle to be. If you find those descriptions side-splittingly hilarious, you might be highly amused by seeing them on-screen for ninety minutes. But the humor of the movie rarely rises above the juxtaposition of the boys - who are now 18 and yet act basically like they’re 9 because that’s when they peaked, and therefore they drink chocolate milk, they think girls have cooties, etc. - and their grotty environment full of homeless people, strip clubs, drug dealers, and corporate malfeasance.
There’s a theory of comedy that laughter comes from incongruity resolution. Our brains are presented with something that doesn’t make sense, and the natural neurological urge is to try to make it make sense. Once you recognize the expectation that’s been subverted and how what seemed at first to be incongruous actually does make sense in another context, you get a little burst of brain-pleasure and smile or a big burst and laugh. But there’s this weird strain of humor that’s all about the incongruity with no resolution, other than “oh, they’re being stupid on purpose!” (Also sometimes taking the form of “Oh, that wasn’t what I expected, it came out of left field, but I still recognize it!”; see Family Guy.) And that’s pretty much the entire approach of Mystery Team, all incongruity, no resolution. It’s never really explained why the trio are stuck with the mentality of nine-year-olds (more specifically nine-year-olds who grew up in the mythical squeaky-clean 1950’s or something) or how they’ve made it through high school so far. The whole plot is set in motion by a little girl (a real one) asking the Team to find out who killed her parents; this is where Aubrey Plaza comes in, as the little girl’s big sister who explains that the parents were killed in a home invasion gone bad and begs the Team NOT to string her sister along that they’re going to “crack the case”. That kind of basic empathy for a grieving child should be a given, and almost threatens to derail what’s supposed to be a goofy comedy with frequent forays into gross-out humor, except once Plaza’s character does something close to what a normal human being would do the rest of the cast carries on with the plot regardless, and eventually Plaza becomes Glover’s love interest, as much as she can be given that he is still playing as weirdly willfully pre-pubescent. Sigh.
For what it’s worth, I’d actually love to see an entire romantic comedy with Donald Glover and Aubrey Plaza as the leads, but that will have to wait, I suppose. As it stands, speaking of romance, it was a bit of a risk I took watching Mystery Team as a SMOAT considering that my wife likes Donald Glover as much as I do, and laments Troy being written out of Community last season as much as I do, and she might have been (understandably!) disappointed if I said I had seen the best little indie comedy starring him, all by myself. But with some relief I can report that she dodged a bullet by not being subjected to the underwhelming meh of Mystery Team. (I kind of had a feeling that would be the case, so the bright side is, I was right.)
Anyway, Plaza fares much better in Safety Not Guaranteed, where she plays an intern at a magazine who gets roped into working on a story profiling a man who placed an ad in the classifieds looking for a partner to travel back in time with. When the smarmy feature writer who was going to get the goods blows it with the intended profile subject by coming on too strong, Plaza has to pretend to be genuinely interested in the time travel in order to get the goods for the article.
Mark Duplass plays the eccentric would-be time traveler and he manages to walk the fine line between pathetic delusion and the curious possibility that he knows things no one else knows. His antics, especially the physical humor of preparing himself for potential hazards of time travel by turning his backyard into a makeshift training compound, are what gives the movie the slightest claim on being a comedy. It’s really more of a dramedy, or possibly a very low-stakes drama. It has a certain lo-fi charm, and ultimately a feel-good message about how we make our way through the trials and travails of life, all of which may sound like faint praise but is really just intended to make the point that it’s a good, entertaining indie film, if not a great, earth-shattering, cinema-redefining, life-altering one. They can’t all be that, after all.
In both Mystery Team and Safety Not Guaranteed, Aubrey Plaza winds up overshadowed by April Ludgate. April is so specifically weird and so relentlessly, aggressively in-your-face, and apparently when people cast Plaza they want some of that spirit but ultimately have to tell her to turn it down a bit (plus they inevitably don’t have the same writers Parks and Rec does) and they wind up with just a generic disaffected, sarcastic Millennial. So in my attempt to fill the void left by no new sitcoms over the summer, I’ve really just made myself that much more eager for the premiere of the coming season of Parks and Recreation.
Which, of course, apparently won’t be aired until spring of 2015, because NBC hates me and doesn’t want me to be happy.