*Mystery, Alaska (R)
You can never have too many David and Goliath tales, even of the sports genre. Yes, you'll have to sit through the obligatory, 11th-hour locker-room, rah-rah, get 'em up-speeches; yes, you'll be forced to watch the last slow-motion shot/bat/kick/putt that will resolve the whole story, but honestly, isn't that a small price to pay for such a warm and tingly feeling?
Mystery, Alaska is a worthy addition to the genre. The town in question is a tiny, frozen village where there's nothing to do in winter but play hockey and make love. The centerpiece of hockey playing is the "Saturday game," a four-on-four contest that pits the town's best players against one another.
First among the players is Sheriff John Biebe (Russell Crowe), who, despite his skill in the game, is being replaced by a young whippersnapper 15 years his junior. Then, into town comes Charles Danner (Hank Azaria), a hometown boy made good in New York as a television producer. Although Chuck can't play hockey himself, he can do the next best thing -- bring the New York Rangers to play the legendary Saturday boys. The town goes into a frenzy at this opportunity to either be placed on, or wiped off of, the hockey map of the world.
In Mystery, hockey isn't a sport, it is a religion. And like in most religions, there are much better parts for the boys than the girls. Mystery, Alaska's writers acknowledge as much by giving Donna Biebe some of the best lines in the film: When Mayor Scott Pitcher (Colm Meaney) waxes rhapsodic about the arrival of a Zamboni machine, Mary McCormack gets to say dryly: "A Zamboni. I'm getting wet already." Ouch.
With the exception of a few good lines like that, though, it is a mystery to me why the R-rated Mystery, Alaska chose to include so much sex that doesn't further the story (could it be another boy thing I just don't understand?).
With the fine characterization of the Biebe family's trials and tribulations especially well-acted by Russell Crowe, Mystery, Alaska could be a great PG flick. It's a pity, too, that you can't take your kids to see the really gorgeous scenery (filmed in Alberta, Canada) and even better sports photography that captures the speed and finesse of fine hockey.
On the other hand, you can go home to the kids and report that in an age of the corporatization of everything from religion to sports, Americans still cling to the notion that somehow, some way, the little guy will triumph, or at least gain respect in trying. That's a crock, of course, but one we won't give up soon, so we might as well keep making happy little movies like Mystery, Alaska to keep the dream alive.