Mystery, Alaska

Directed by Jay Roach. Canada/USA. 1999.

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I will always adore Russell Crowe for two reasons:

1) I know, no matter what movie I'm seeing, if he's in it I'll enjoy it.

2) He's netted me $40.

How you might ask? Two winning bets. One was made with a Denzel Washington adoring friend after watching Virtuosity. I wagered $20 that Crowe would be a big name in two years or less. One The Quick and the Dead, and Breaking Up later I collected my winnings. The other gambler was a complete stranger in my local video shop. He and I got into a heated debate over the previous roles of that guy in Gladiator.  I won my $20 when he elected to wager that guy from The Insider couldn't possibly be his favoured Roman general. Say what you will about his various performances, Crowe is a chameleon, a character actor who's a mainstream heartthrob. He is a complete oddity in Hollywood, and one of it's most skilful employees. As he is up, once again for the Best Actor Oscar (in 2002), it's a perfect time to take a look back at one of his most adorable movies; Mystery, Alaska.

Mystery, Alaska. All Rights Reserved.Mystery Alaska is the story of an amazing group of characters living in a hockey obsessed town. When one of their local boys, (now writing for Sports Illustrated) does a piece claiming that his home hockey team is as good or better, than any team currently playing in the NHL the New York Rangers jump on the challenge, turning the town of Mystery inside out. 

Russell Crowe (Proof of Life, Romper Stomper) is perfectly cast here as the local sheriff, John Biebe. Here is a character you like from the second you see him. Biebe isn't larger than life, he seems an ordinary man, with an extraordinary heart. Crowe gives him a nice layer by having him be able to express his emotions to everyone in town, save for those closest to him. His character's insecurities over unresolved feelings his wife may have for an ex-boyfriend are charming. It makes you like the character all the more, for most of the men I know who have seen this movie, (though they'll never admit it) identified quite strongly with Biebe's qualms, and need for reassurances.

Hank Azaria (Grosse Pointe Blank, Quiz Show) stars as local boy turned star reporter Charlie Danner. It's interesting how this role allowed much of a small town mentality to shine through in the smaller characters reactions to him; either quite proud that someone from their town had done so well for himself, or angry with him for leaving his home. Azaria does well here, giving Charlie an outer shell of being quite blustery when he first arrives in town, almost as though he feels a need to prove himself. (Which may not have been far off the mark, considering the relative newcomer Azaria was up with Burt Reynolds, and Russell Crowe in this one.) That sort of tension never dissipates throughout, making the watcher empathize with Charlie. This character wasn't extemely well developed but Azaria gives him a fully layered personality. A very nice job.

Ron Eldard (The Last Supper, Blackhawk Down) plays Skank, the town ladies man. Here again is a nicely acted character. The script doesn't give much for Eldard to work with, but he takes David E. Kelley's (Lake Placid) creation and runs with it, giving you the sense that, while Skank's behaviour might in fact be childish, he is all too aware of that fact, making his character seem far less shallow than Kelley would have made him.

The other beautiful element to this movie is the setting of Alaska. The constant surround shots of the incredible environment of this state make the movie tighter. It's rare for a Canadian to express admiration for the loveliness of a place where winter lasts 10 months a year, since we have to put up with it for far too long it seems, but here the cold weather, and the icy surroundings of Mystery seem to bring it's inhabitants closer together, whether it's to battle the cold of their climate, or to come together to enjoy it. (Whereas winter turns most Canadians into weather hypocrites, when it's winter we long for summer, when it's summer....)

I realize that I may have my Canadian citizenship revoked for saying this, but I'll risk it. I am not a hockey fan. I rank it as a spectator sport, up there with transmission repair. But I did enjoy this movie. There's more than enough drama and excitement pumped into the personal scenes to drag a non-hockey person through the bits of the boys skating on the lake. In the hands of a lesser team Kelley's script would have fallen flat, but Crowe and Co. take it on, making it a captivating ensemble piece about so much more than just a game of hockey.

Jen Johnston
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