The loser superheroes of the unexpectedly smart comic book send-up
Mystery Men are a pretty pathetic lot. There’s Mr. Furious (professional neurotic Ben Stiller) who gets really, really mad, the Shoveler (a painfully nice William H. Macy) who does semi-nifty things with a shovel, and the self-described fop Blue Raja (Hank Azaria) who throws forks with not-so-pinpoint accuracy. Bumbling in the shadow of a real superhero, the corporate-logo-adorned Captain Amazing (a perfectly smug Greg Kinnear), the trio hope for just one legit feat of derring-do, when what they really need (or at least needed 15 years ago) is a long, all-body soak in a powerful astringent.
The team gets its chance for
redemption when Captain Amazing, stung by low super-fight ratings and the loss of his Pepsi endorsement, has his biggest arch-nemesis Casanova Frankenstein (an appropriately loony Geoffrey Rush) paroled. Frankenstein of course has other plans—not only kidnapping Amazing but setting about the de rigueur destruction of the world. Furious, Shoveler, and Raja stumble into action, holding a super-friend tryout pool party that nets only the ball-throwing Bowler (Janeane Garofalo), a fart-aiming Spleen (Paul “Pee Wee” Reubens), and the Invisible Boy (Kel Mitchell), a black kid who can apparently disappear, but only when no one is looking.
Skillfully adapted from Bob Burden’s indie comic series, Mystery Men is less interested in high-flying bang-ups than in the side-business of slaying personal dragons, like Furious’s daily
humiliations at the hands of his boss or the Shoveler’s African American wife, who wants to know just when he’s going to give this superhero foolishness up. As with the best tales of loser supermen, Mystery Men is wryly sentimental stuff, but it’s also pretty sharp, imagining a low-brow universe where the primal secret origin isn’t a radioactive spider’s bite but the ever-transformative purchase of that first comic book.
Imagining another kind of geek triumph entirely, Free Enterprise is a reference-laden but emotionally thin relationship comedy set in the oddly intertwined worlds of Star Trek fandom and the straight-to-video industry. Following that age-old debut gambit where the frustrated film geek self-actualizes by making a movie, Enterprise tells the tale of Robert (Rafer Weigel) who, like director Robert Meyer Burnett, edits a sci-fi fan mag, and Mark (Eric McCormack, of TV’s Will and Grace) a perpetually broke video editor.
The pair babble about laser disc re-masters of The Planet of the Apes and dreamt-of film projects while on a perpetual pussy hunt, Robert having “practice sex” with a shrewish ex-friend as Mark is serial-dumped over his tendency to buy memorabilia with the rent money. The winds of change blow into their lives in the form of a serious girlfriend for Mark (she’s the only babe comics fan in California) and a chance meeting with their hero Bill, as in William “Kirk” Shatner. Enterprise doesn’t know jack about love or making movies, but things do reach a point of high madness when Shatner confesses that his big ambition in life is to direct and star in a six-hour, one-man, musical adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. “I know it sounds
ridiculous,” he says in that famous stutter-step intonation, “but the thing is, I really think I can do it.”
Looking like a bad boy Donny
Osmond, the eponymous hero of The Adventures of Sebastian Cole is no loser geek, just a boozing teenage underachiever with dreams of being a writer. Set in ’80s upstate New York, the movie follows Sebastian through an ambling group of randomly quirky set pieces, and although first time writer-director Tod Williams could have trimmed some self-indulgent, adolescent fat, he does manage to say a few interesting things about growing up smart but affectless.
Sebastian (played with no small measure of blank charm by Adrian Grenier) is already a child of divorce, but his life goes seriously haywire when his
aggressively decent stepdad, Hank (Clark Gregg), announces out of nowhere that he’s going in for sex reassignment surgery. Sebastian is freaked out but typically contained (“So. You’re gonna have your dick cut off,” he mutters into a soda) and when Mom flees to her native England, she leaves Sebastian in the care of the recently rechristened Henrietta. From there Sebastian doesn’t fall apart so much as he gets a newfound sense of—and appreciation for—all the ways he doesn’t fit in. He wings it through senior year, meets a girl, and takes trips down to punk shows in New York City, alternately testing his own mettle and engaging in an unexpectedly credible emotional staring match with Henrietta. Just like its hero, The Adventures of Sebastian Cole has the feel of a promising work in progress, but the beginner’s missteps fade before the high points, as when Henrietta, the ex-marine transsexual, takes cuts with his stepson in a batting cage and gives him that most familiar of pep talks about his grades.