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.