review for Mystery, Alaska on AllMovie

Mystery, Alaska (1999)
by Karl Williams review

A surprisingly diffuse film from Austin Powers director Jay Roach and TV writer/producer David E. Kelley, this sports comedy-drama bursts at the seams with a cast of dozens and never quite gels, thanks to a lack of focus and dramatic tension (there really is no antagonist here). There are cinematic artists at work, such as Robert Altman, who excel at peopling their work with innumerable characters, using their wide-ranging tableau to thoroughly examine issues, societies, and themes. That's not the case here, in what feels like an excuse for Kelley and the filmmakers to avoid examining any one particular character's arc too closely. There are hints aplenty of interesting interior lives here, particularly those of an irascible judge (Burt Reynolds) and a philandering wife (Lolita Davidovich) but they go unexplored. Accustomed as he is to populating law firms, hospitals, and small towns with casts of eccentrics that are dramatically dissected over the course of an entire TV season, the screenwriter makes the mistake of adhering to the same formula in a one-off feature which lacks the time for probing characters. The film is also infected with the tone of smarmy, ironic preciousness endemic to so much of Kelley's work, annoying on the small screen but absolutely deadly here. Mystery, Alaska is, like Kelley's other 1999 film Lake Placid, an interesting effort with some notably effective scenes, but its overall effect is of a story that could have been told with a great deal more precision and depth.