What happens to child investigators like the Hardy Boys or Encyclopedia Brown when they grow up? Most people would assume that they mature and leave their case files behind them – or become something more akin to the young-adult crime-solvers in Scooby Doo.
Mystery Team explores an entirely different option. When kid gumshoes Jason (“the Master of Disguise”), Duncan (“the Boy Genius”), and Charlie (“the Strongest Kid in Town”) turn 18, not much changes at all. They still dress like children, drink chocolate milk, and ride their bikes around town, despite owning cars. The cases they solve are equally juvenile – who stole a taste of an old lady’s pie? – and are solved using the “genius knowledge” of a wacky fact book and the brute force of someone who, once they hit a growth spurt, turned out to be kind of a weakling. Sensing the town’s derision, team leader Jason decides that he wants the group to be taken seriously, and sets out to solve a real, adult murder (for a dime).
The movie comes from sketch troupe Derrick Comedy, a group of five performers who started together at NYU and the Upright Citizens Brigade theater in New York City. (The most recognizable member is Donald Glover, who plays Troy on Community and wrote for 30 Rock. In a display of infuriating multi-talented abilities, he also composed the score for Mystery Team.) The group – which also includes D.C. Pierson, who plays Duncan, and Dominic Dierkes, who plays Charlie – later produced a series of short online videos, which went on to varying degrees of ubiquity. (“Bro Rape” and “Blowjob Girl” are currently the two most popular, according to their YouTube channel).
“The story of Mystery Team has paralleled the story of Derrick”, Glover says in the DVD’s making-of featurette (which is more a behind-the-scenes montage of people looking tired than a true making-of story). “The characters in Mystery Team want people to see them as professionals, and we always had big plans to be so much more”.
If the group is looking for a comedic calling card, Mystery Team is a pretty good one – it’s incredibly funny.
Comedy is the heart of the movie. Though everyone in the cast is well matched to his or her role, it’s clear that they were chosen for the movie for their abilities to be naturally funny, not because they can disappear into their characters. The result is a series of encounters with small-town misfits that are exaggerated and distorted versions of the actors who play them (or at least were created with their comedic strengths in mind).
This is the right way to approach the material, primarily because the actors they rounded up are really darn funny. In addition to the Derrick players, most of the remaining cast members are recognizable from other comedies (oddly enough, most of them can be found on NBC): Kevin Brown (30 Rock), Ellie Kemper (The Office), John Lutz (30 Rock), Bobby Moynihan (Saturday Night Live), Aubrey Plaza (Parks and Recreation), and Matt Walsh (The Upright Citizens Brigade), among others. They come together not to create the most believable fictional universe or parody any particular style of movie. Instead, the movie just showcases what they can do, both individually and as a sketch group. (You can tell that the Derrick Comedy has natural chemistry with each other from the DVD’s deleted scenes and bonus material, most of which just shows the cast goofing off between takes).
In this regard, they do carve out a niche for themselves among similarly rag-tag low-budget indie comedies. (For a rundown of obstacles facing the movie’s production, listen to the chaotic commentary track, which includes all of Derrick’s members). In part, it’s because of the nature of the Mystery Team itself. Since the main trio play so innocent and naïve, the jokes they deliver have to be relatively clean. The characters themselves don’t use bad language, don’t take drugs, and don’t even know enough about sex to say anything blue.
Sometimes, they’re thrown in situations – such as adventuring in strip-club bathrooms, or talking to far-more-experienced (and foul-mouthed) children – that are meant to shock and highlight their innocence through an extreme contrast. There is plenty of sexual and gross-out humor, some simultaneously, but mostly they have to earn laughs through the sweetness of their characters. (In this regard, the movie is more Napoleon Dynamite than “Bro Rape and Blowjob Girl: The Movie”). As opposed to a movie like this summer’s MacGruber, which tried to get laughs by seeing how horribly violent, sexually explicit, and extremely-R-rated it could get away with, Mystery Team instead pulls way back from its online Derrick sketches. It’s a much harder kind of comedy to pull off, which makes it that much more rewarding when it succeeds.