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by: Scott Renshaw

In MYSTERY, ALASKA, local sheriff John Biebe (Russell Crowe) contends with feelings of inadequacy. Writer Charlie Danner (Hank Azaria), an expatriate resident, wants to be loved by the people he left behind. Stern Judge Burns (Burt Reynolds) has difficulty connecting with his son Birdie (Scott Grimes). Mayor Scott Pitcher (Colm Meaney) and his wife (Lolita Davidovich) face marital strife. Studly local teen Stevie Weeks (Ryan Northcott) and his girlfriend Marla (Rachel Wilson) contemplate a sexual relationship. A grocer (Michael Buie) is charged with shooting a potential chain-store competitor's representative (Michael McKean) in the foot. A promiscuous man (Ron Eldard) gets a comeuppance. A corpulent attorney (Maury Chaykin) makes the biggest court speech of his lifetime.

Oh yes, and there's also a hockey game of some sort.

After two obscenely bloated hours of MYSTERY, ALASKA, the question may no longer be how David E. Kelley ("The Practice," "Ally McBeal," "Chicago Hope," "Snoops") can be so prolific, but why he doesn't know when to quit. Ostensibly, the film is the story of a tiny Alaskan hamlet with a tradition of great skaters participating in a ritualistic Saturday afternoon hockey game against one another. When Danner writes a "Sports Illustrated" cover story on Mystery, the NHL decides to send the New York Rangers for a goodwill exhibition game against the scrappy underdogs. The set-up is extremely promising, gradually revealing the importance of hockey and the "Saturday game" to the residents of Mystery. With Carter Burwell's typically splendid score adding to the mystery of Mystery, there's hope that Kelley and director Jay Roach will combine an amusing little sociology lesson about small-town pride with the ever-appealing scrappy underdog story.

They then proceed to heap so much extra baggage on the story that it never has a chance of getting off the ground. It's one thing to spend time on Biebe's story, in which his emasculating ouster from the Saturday game runs parallel with his jealousy of local celebrity Danner -- who also happens to be the old flame of Biebe's wife Donna (Mary McCormack). There's even an excuse, however feeble, for Marla's awkward attempts to make sure Steve won't leave her for an easier catch. The rest of the half-dozen or so plot threads in MYSTERY, ALASKA are just plain inexcusable. The first hour of the film is a grinding ordeal, so fragmented and unfocused that it's easy to forget what it's all supposed to be leading up to.

In the final half-hour, when the film finally gets around to the hockey game, MYSTERY, ALASKA generates at least a little energy. The Rangers are a fairly anonymous opponent -- too much time is wasted on tangents to create a worthy adversary -- but Roach directs the game scenes with plenty of verve. Then even the game begins to over-stay its welcome, losing momentum by the minute. Any potential for a rousing conclusion is lost in memories of the preceding two hours, with its two typically bombastic Kelley courtroom scenes, tedious pacing and undisciplined script. MYSTERY, ALASKA is a film that inspires slack-jawed frustration, leaving a viewer scrambling for a reason why this simple concept went so horribly wrong. The answer may be just as simple: perhaps Kelley grew bored with something as mundane as a single film, and decided to turn it into a rambling two hour pilot for yet another television series.

On the Renshaw scale of 0 to 10 hockey schticks: 3.


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