The coming attraction makes it clear that “Mystery, Alaska” is your basic “Rocky” movie about a grown-up version of the Mighty Ducks — a team from a small, hockey-worshipping Alaska town gets a chance to play the New York Rangers. So we expect your basic redemption through sports plot, including the death of a loveable character, the healing of old wounds, the learning of important lessons about teamwork and pride, endearingly quirky players, deeper understanding and acceptance between family members, a young player just beginning and an older one approaching time to hang up his skates, and at least one speech about how our guys don’t play for money, they play for the love of the game! And we settle back, waiting for our hearts to be warmed.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. The reason that formulas endure is that they usually work, as long as the details are all right and there is nothing too overtly manipulative, and nothing that interferes with our ability to suspend disbelief. And here the details are pretty good, especially the feel of the remote, snowy town, where kids skate the river and make out in snowplows and everyone turns out every week to watch the Saturday hockey game. And there are fine ensemble performances. The hockey game is pretty good, too. And there are a couple of very funny guest cameos to pick things up near the end.
Prodigal son Charles Danner (Hank Azaria), who left to be a big city writer, brings in the Rangers after his article about the weekly game in Mystery, Alaska. Despite the fact that the town judge (Burt Reynolds) cautions against it, urging the town to cling to their illusions and their dignity, the people cannot resist their chance at the big time. Local sheriff John Biebe (Russell Crowe), just dropped from the team to make room for a high school student who skates like a rocket, agrees to coach. Everyone has issues to resolve – the judge is harsh and rigid, the high school kid and his girlfriend are exploring sex, the sheriff’s difficulty in being cut from the team comes just as his wife’s former boyfriend shows up, the town lothario (Ron Eldard) has some unfinished business with a couple of different women and one angry husband, a huge chain store is thinking of coming to town to compete with the local businesses, and those Rangers look awfully big up close.
It is all very predictable, but also very watchable. I predict that they’ll get at least one “the feel-good movie of the year!” blurb for the newspaper ads. And they might even be right.
Parents should know that there is very strong and very vivid language, including locker-room style descriptions of sex, a child’s use of four- letter words played for humor, a wounded man’s use of very strong language played for humor, a character who has casual sex with almost every woman he meets (and who apologizes to the husband of one of them, with no suggestion that this might make the woman seem like property), explicit depictions of sexual encounters, including one between teenagers, and some violence (punched noses, semi-accidental shooting resulting in minor injury). The teen-age girl says that she wants to have sex because she is afraid of losing her boyfriend, which parents may want to discuss. The boy makes it clear that he is perfectly comfortable with waiting, and does not want to do it for that reason. They then go ahead, but are not able to complete the act, which causes great feelings of insecurity for both of them. Her mother, though clearly uncomfortable, responds with sympathy and support.
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy the original Rocky and Crowe’s performances in The Insider and A Beautiful Mind.