A FULL FORTY-FIVE minutes into "Mystery Men," the sputtering spoof of comic-book superheroes seems about to conk out under the weight of the world's longest, most tedious exposition.
But then, faster than a speeding script doctor, more powerful than a William Morris talent agent and able to leap tall plot inconsistencies in a single bound, Paul "Pee-wee Herman" Reubens rushes in to rescue the foundering film and carry it to goofy, glorious victory.
Reubens (the former Groundlings actor best known for the demented man-child he played on TV and the silver screen in the '80s) is a national treasure of whom we have seen far too little since he was arrested for indecent exposure in 1991. In "Mystery Men," he's one of the best things -- along with the ever-astringent Janeane Garofalo -- to bounce across the screen. Keeping their loopy characters, called the Spleen and the Bowler, out of the first half of the movie is a major miscalculation.
Yes, I know how the formula works, how the tease is all part of the narrative build. How a ragtag band of underdog superheroes -- in this case, a trio of whining dysfunction known as Mr. Furious (a tantrum-throwing Ben Stiller), the Shoveler (a spade-wielding William H. Macy) and the Blue Raja (a turbaned, Brit-accented Hank Azaria, armed with forks and spoons) -- must first be beaten down before they can seek reinforcements. How they must first be humiliated before they attempt to rescue Captain Amazing (Greg Kinnear), defeat arch-villain Casanova Frankenstein (Geoffrey Rush) and redeem themselves in the eyes of the Champion City citizenry.
As in a host of cinematic precursors, assembling a cadre of warriors -- even delusional and incompetent ones -- takes time.
Except this ain't "The Seven Samurai," and director Kinka Usher is no Akira Kurosawa.
After a clumsily choreographed battle scene in a nursing home and almost an hour of slowpoky set-up, "Mystery Men" finally hits its stride with the requisite, and for the most part droll, audition montage -- so familiar to viewers from "The Commitments," "The Full Monty" and movies of that ilk. Featuring tryouts by such superhero wannabes as Pencilhead, Son of Pencilhead ("We erase crime!") and my personal favorite, the PMS Avenger ("I only work four days a month. Do you have a problem with that?"), the scene generates the film's first real sustained laughter and sets the frothy, lowbrow tone for the rest of the story.
Once the team is assembled, "Mystery Men" kicks into high gear, with a steady blast of sophomoric humor (a sassy fusion of the sharp and the stupid from writer Neil Cuthbert) that rarely lets up. In addition to Furious, Shoveler and Raja, the team of seven -- six mystery men and one woman -- includes the Bowler (Garofalo with a Lucite ball containing the skull of her dead father), Invisible Boy (Kel Mitchell, who may or may not have the ability to become, well, you know), the Sphinx (Wes Studi as a caped and masked crusader spouting aphorisms poached from 12-step recovery programs) and the aforementioned Spleen.
Reubens's uproarious impersonation of a 'toon, made-up with a face full of warty skin eruptions and a "Spinal Tap"-style wig, splashes through his sibilant dialogue with a Daffy Duck speech impediment that turns every "ess" into a saliva-soaked sputter. His secret weapon -- something that should not be elaborated upon in detail in a family newspaper -- can best be described as Silent But Deadly (but truth be told, it's not all that silent).
Yes, that's the long and the short of it. As incisive as a loud, wet raspberry and about as full of topical gravitas as the Dark Horse comic book on which it's based (despite a bad guy called Big Tobacco), "Mystery Men" is one half of a very funny movie, and as we enter these dog days of August, half a funny movie is better than none.
MYSTERY MEN (PG-13, 121 minutes) -- Contains a couple of mildly bad words, bathroom humor, sexual innuendo and cartoon violence. Area theaters.