Tuesday, September 13th, 2011

Why Derrick Comedy's Mystery Team Deserves Cult Classic Status

In case the picture to the left hasn’t made it abundantly clear yet, you are skimming reading an entreaty on behalf of the underrated Derrick Comedy movie, Mystery Team, which bears no resemblance or relation to Ben Stiller’s misfit superheroes flick, Mystery Men. Still with me? Great. Mystery Team is a gem that earned a limited release in 2009 in just about the scrappiest way imaginable. It was a success that the movie managed to sneak into theatres at all, but up until now it’s mostly been seen by just the group’s core fan base. Let’s change that!

Derrick Comedy is a sketch group that emerged last decade with a series of videos that attracted millions of eyeballs on Youtube. It’s a familiar story: the group’s origins and modus operandi have a soul mate in that other New York-based comedy crew from the same period, Human Giant. Also, both groups similarly spawned breakout stars on a network sitcom (Human Giant’s Aziz Ansari landed on Parks and Recreation, and Derrick’s Donald Glover is on Community) which lead to sell-out crowds on stand up tours. The groups differ, though, in that Human Giant’s deserved big break came via a show on MTV, while Derrick’s ambitious leap of faith involved independently producing a feature film of their own.

For a bunch of college students, Glover and his partners, DC Pierson and Dominic Dierkes, were uncommonly savvy about their growing internet fame. They incorporated early on and threw all the money they earned from YouTube revenue sharing, online advertising, merch, and tours into a single account. This account was earmarked for some future TBD project, which ended up becoming Mystery Team. They were aided and abetted in this venture by behind-the-scenes Derrick cohorts, Dan Eckman and Meggie McFadden, who directed and produced the film respectively.

Although restricted by a tight budget, the Derrick crew still had enough capital (and foresight) to rent out RED cameras — technological marvels that are designed to be affordable for professional-leaning student filmmakers. As a result, the movie is beautifully shot, while still imbued with the ramshackle energy of amateurs working on a labor of love. It doesn’t hurt either that the movie’s supporting cast is thick with a who’s who of Derrick’s New York comedy compatriots, including Bobby Moynihan, Matt Walsh, Aubrey Plaza, Will Hines, Ben Schwartz, Jon Daly, Kay Cannon, Ellie Kemper, and John Lutz. ALSO DOT COM!

Considering the precedent for feature films made by sketch groups, Mystery Team falls short of the deranged heights of standard-bearers, Monty Python (and furthermore: duh), but it hangs together better than the Mr. Show movie, Run Ronnie Run, and also possibly Kids in the Hall’s Brain Candy. Unlike those movies, Mystery Team never feels like a collection of sketches strung together by an overarching theme. Instead, it plays out like a less-slapsticky update of comedic ancestors The Three Stooges and The Marx Brothers, who quickly established their premises and then bounced around through some kind of plot for 88 minutes, give or take.

The titular Mystery Team is a group of 18 year old man-children who still continue the junior detective agency they started as children-children. They’re like a trio of Encyclopedias Brown who never grew up or discovered girls, and one of the running gags throughout the movie is the various other ways their pristine innocence has been cryogenically preserved all the way through to their late teens.

Even the archetypes the three characters have defined for themselves are the kind that starry-eyed children would dream up. If we’re to continue with the admittedly hyperbolic Marx Brothers/Stooges analogy, Donald Glover’s Jason is the Groucho/Moe. He may not be the brains of the operation (that would be DC Pierson’s Duncan), but he is its undisputed leader and driving force. This seems only natural since Glover appears to be the one who came up with the idea for the movie. In addition to his keen detection skills, Jason is also a master of disguise. That ability, combined with the antiquated language some of these disguises call for, provides another evergreen gag throughout the movie.

DC Pierson, who bears a slight vocal and facial resemblance to “Napoleon Dynamite’s Jon Heder”, bravely dons a most unfortunate bowl haircut to play Duncan the Boy Genius. Now college-age, Duncan isn’t so much a Boy Genius as he is just a kid who once memorized one of those books of amazing trivia facts. Rounding out the trio is Dominic Dierkes’ Charlie: The Strongest Kid in Town. In addition to not living up to his idiom, Charlie is also impossibly dumb. That doesn’t stop him, though, from imagining himself to be a bruiser like Russell Crowe’s hard-boiled character from LA Confidential. When the Mystery Team is in dire need of some clues, Charlie makes this offer: “Want me to go down to the playground? Bust a few heads?”

The plot is set in motion when a client presents an actual case to these three pseudo-sleuths, whose specialty involves solving crimes on the level of candy-theft. Newly orphaned tween Brianna believes that the Mystery Team can help her find out who killed her parents. Despite initial protests from within the group and also from Brianna’s older sister, played by Aubrey Plaza, Jason insists that the team hold true to their credo: “No case too small, no case too tough.”

That’s pretty much all there is to it, and all there needs to be. Obviously, we’re not supposed to get too emotionally invested in the plot mechanics of how the gang ends up solving the case. These matter not. All that counts is that nearly every step of the way contains a few funny beats, with a generous smattering of quotable lines throughout.

Donald Glover may have turned out to be the Aziz Ansari/Andy Samberg of the group, but Dominic and DC are no slouches either, having started a podcast and written a novel since, respectively. Both have also parlayed their sketch skills into stand up careers, and have locked down roles in the upcoming film which I refuse to call anything but it’s original title, The Hand Job. In Mystery Team, all three members of Derrick are given equal chances to shine and they all deliver the goods. If you look closely, though, you’ll notice a nod toward Glover’s musical prowess, which foreshadowed his success as Childish Gambino.

After premiering to much acclaim at Sundance in 2009, Mystery Team later landed a distributor but did not get a traditional release. Instead the movie showed up in select theatres around the country based on high demands on eventful.com, before eventually landing on DVD. It may not have earned a lot of money in theatres, but the movie got some very decent notices from critics and launched all inolved on the path to bigger and better projects. For an independently produced offering from a young sketch group, this is about all one could hope for from a theatrical run. Now comes the fun part, where the movie turns into a cult classic before our eyes. Mystery Team is streaming on Netflix Instant so there’s no excuse not to check it out. Spread the word.

Joe Berkowitz edits books and writes stuff. He also has a Tumblr.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Caroline-Anderson/731041782 Caroline Anderson

    I don't have to read this to know that I'll agree the shit out of it.

    But I did read it. And I'll add my thoughts. I think that Mystery Team will have the same affect as Wet Hot American Summer. 17-23 year old kids who never really established their own comedic sensibility will discover it and turn into comedy geeks. It's such a unique movie, yet totally accessible. Every friend I've shown it to has loved it, comedy nerd or not. Those friends often then get into podcasting or comedy blogs. I think it's a huge gateway into comedy nerdery and deservedly so.

    (also, you misspelled DC's last name throughout the entire article)

    • http://splitsider.com Adam Frucci

      @Caroline Anderson His name looks spelled correctly to me?

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Caroline-Anderson/731041782 Caroline Anderson

      @Adam Frucci Well, now only 2 of the spellings are incorrect, but it's PiersOn. (I know for SURE all of them were mispelled earlier. I did a control f).

  • Nick Taylor@facebook

    I'll second the shit out of this motion. I bought this unseen and immediately showed it to a dozen people and there wasn't a dry eye in the house when it was over.

  • http://www.twitter.com/pablogold Pablo Goldstein

    This is a really, really bad movie. I like Glover and I had this on my Netflix queue for ages. But within 10 minutes you can get a sense for how awful it's going to be. I felt bad for Aubrey Plaza. She has nothing to do in the entire movie except say sad things to Donald Glover.

    I did enjoy watching Ellie Kemper kick a trash can for talking back to her, though.

  • Eric Phipps@facebook

    Counterpoint. This movie is godawful. Totally flat direction, totally flat characterization, horrible soundtrack, atrocious pacing, atrocious everything.

    The best scene is Ellie Kemper kicking a trashcan and that's a five second throwaway gag.

    This movie is bad and I was embarrassed for everyone involved.

  • http://videoshare.tumblr.com Firas Alexander

    Counter counterpoint. This movie was hilarious. It just felt more fun than a lot of comedy movies that do make it to theaters. Like all the players weren't doing it for a paycheck but just the kind of comedy they waned to see. For me the funny was in the details of the movie like the old joke book and top hats. I couldn't agree more that I hope this becomes a cult smash hit comedy. I own the DVD and it was money well spent.

  • HerooftheBeach

    Another vote for "this movie is terrible." I really, REALLY wanted to like this movie, but in the end I had to stop watching it half way through, because it was just too painful.

    Mystery Team definitely felt like a bunch of sketches strung together, and none of those sketches were anywhere near good. Everything in the film was painfully obvious and poorly thought out, and I was predicting the jokes before they happened. Mystery Team is definitely a Bad Comedy, in that it spends all its energy trying to rush to the next gag, spending no time building itself. It's much more like a bad Airplane!/Naked Gun knockoff (minus bad pop culture references, thank god) than a Wet Hot American Summer or a 30 Rock.

    I'm glad that Derrick Comedy ultimately brought Donald Glover to a bigger stage, because he's a fantastic talent, but what's odd to me is how Derrick Comedy never utilized that talent. It could just be that Glover shines brightest when he has a Tina Fey or Dan Harmon around.

    In any case, Mystery Team is a film best left forgotten.

  • http://twitter.com/barbituratecat Avy

    I have to half-agree with the "this movie is horrible" camp. I loved a good chunk of it, but was ultimately disappointed in a lot of the more obvious gags and dialogue. It kind of made me sad, really, because I've been a fan of Derrick Comedy for a long time and find most of their sketches to be very well written and unique.

    I think there could have been a lot more self-awareness regarding the main characters and their suspended state of innocence. It's cute to think of a group of kid detectives who refused to grow up, but almost impossible to suspend the kind of disbelief necessary for that plot device, even in a comedy movie. Probably the best part of the movie was when Pierson and Dierkes admit that they've applied to college and Glover's character can't believe it. There's a really willful type of ignorance someone would need to have to refuse to grow up and admit the world is moving on around them, and that can be played off either very sad or very humorous. I don't think this movie did either, though, which was disappointing.

    Ellie Kemper and the trash can, though, comedy gold. But I might be biased as she is ooooooh so cute!!

  • laura@twitter

    I just happened to watch this movie last night. I thought it was really funny and just fun to watch. My favorite line was DC referring to his trivia book, "By the year 2000, the average computer will be as small as your bedroom…How old is this?" That and when Moynihan's character says that when he got his job at the convenience store he said to himself, "I'm going to work here until the day that I kill myself."

    I'm ready for the sequel – I need to know what happened with Neil Casey and that panda!

  • superberg

    I saw this movie when it was touring, and immediately bought the DVD. It does have its low points, but there are some absolutely golden lines, in particular "This stage is wet, it smells like cold cuts!" and "Do we really need eight balls?" The boys are consistently out of their element, and it makes for great comedy. I'm not a fan of gross-out humor, so some of the nastier jokes aren't my cup of tea, but overall it's a hilarious movie.