When you’ve been writing about movies and pop culture for over two decades, as I have, you get a lot of things egregiously wrong. A lot. I left a preview screening of what I saw as the ponderous and heavy-handed Avatar convinced that I had just witnessed one of the worst flops in cinematic history, not one of the all-time biggest hits.
I similarly spent My Big Fat Greek Wedding wondering what possible audience could exist for a bland big-screen sitcom with very little in the way of conflict (or comedy, or drama, or personality), written and directed by an uncharismatic unknown, before the film went on to become one of the top-grossing hits in American independent film history.
But every once in a while, I get something right.
During Sundance in 2009, I saw a low-budget independent film called Mystery Team (53%) from sketch comedy group Derrick Comedy and first-time director Dan Eckman. It’s a goofy riff on Encyclopedia Brown and the boy detective literary sub-genre about a trio of junior shamuses who find themselves exhilaratingly and terrifyingly immersed in a seamy underworld of sex, drugs, and murder when they’re tasked with solving a case just a tad more serious than the usual lost kitten, hopscotch dispute, or lunch sack fraud.
I liked pretty much everything about the scrappy, overachieving film, written by and starring hungry, young sketch and stand-up performers still in their mid-twenties, but I particularly loved the lead actor. He was funny. He was lovable. He possessed the ineffable quality known as charisma in great abundance. He was ridiculously good-looking in a boyish way that made it easy to buy him as an adorable, emotionally stunted eighteen-year-old, even if he himself was deep into his twenties. He was a terrific actor with a wonderfully expressive face equally suited for drama and comedy, and though Mystery Team was a broad, high-concept goofball comedy, he made its dramatic coming-of-age elements work.
He was, in other words, a star in the truest sense. I filed him away in the mental Rolodex as someone to watch, someone who would be doing big things.
That actor was Donald Glover, and nine years later, he is one of the hottest entertainers alive in multiple mediums. The world is agog with excitement and praise for his zeitgeist-capturing music video for “This Is America,” which has mesmerized the public like no video since Beyonce dropped “Lemonade.” His TV series Atlanta has similarly and rightly been hailed as a perceptive, daring, important masterpiece deeply plugged in to the complexities and pain of the world we live in. On the big screen, Glover is about to become a part of pop culture history when he takes on the iconic role of Lando Calrissian in Solo: A Star Wars Story, the Star Wars spin-off starring Alden Ehrenreich both eagerly anticipated and dreaded in equal measure.
These days, Glover is revered as a creative genius, but in his enormously appealing initial incarnation, he exuded childlike innocence and guileless enthusiasm, whether he was playing big-hearted jock geek Troy Barnes on Community or Jason Rogers, boy detective, in Mystery Team.
Glover stars in the latter as the leader of the titular crime-solving group, a trio of eighteen-year-olds who were once feted by their community for solving adorably child-sized crimes when they were young and now are pitied by everyone for never outgrowing the “boy detective” stage.
Not only is Jason the leader, he’s also the idea man and a master of disguise, even if he’s often distractingly unconvincing. For Jason, being a detective mainly entails wearing ridiculous fake mustaches while portraying comically anachronistic versions of cultural archetypes: old-time hobo, old-time lumberjack, old-time rich man, old-time photographer, and so on. Glover’s lovably inept detective regularly deploys an idiot grin that implicitly conveys, “You’re buying this, right? I’d hate to be making a fool of myself for nothing.” He tries to sell each of these preposterous get-ups through enthusiasm and energy alone, and he never succeeds.
He’s joined by fellow Derrick Comedy mainstay and co-screenwriter Dominic Dierkes as Charlie Day, the self-proclaimed “strongest boy in town.” Charlie is the muscle of the group, in addition to being a Ralph Wiggum-like disseminator of oddly poetic non-sequiturs. Alas, Charlie’s Samson-like strength seems to exist only in his own mind — all available evidence suggests he’s as weak as a newborn kitten, but not quite as bright.
Novelist, Derrick Comedy member, and final co-screenwriter D.C. Pierson rounds out the trio as Duncan Wheeler, the “smartest boy in town” (also self-proclaimed), a bowl cut-sporting doofus with a bit of a Harry Potter vibe who mistakes his ability to rattle off random facts from trivia books for intellectual brilliance.
These three sad but oddly endearing weirdos have managed to hold onto the minds of small children deep into their teenage years. They’re has-beens facing an uncertain future until a little girl asks them to solve something a little different and more intense than their usual fare: the double murder of her parents. Jason seizes upon this as an opportunity to crack the biggest case of their short, not terribly eventful careers and finally prove he and his pals are real detectives.
Of course it doesn’t hurt that Kelly Peters (a pre-stardom Aubrey Plaza), the older sister of the little girl who hires the Mystery Team, is so alluring — in that deadpan, monotone, vaguely Goth Aubrey Plaza kind of way — that she causes a flustered Jason to reconsider his strong conviction that girls are yucky.
Plaza is far from the only future comedy star lending her idiosyncratic presence to this project, though. Saturday Night Live’s Bobby Moynihan is hilarious and also deeply sad as an over-enthusiastic shopkeeper who offers the trio clues, his support, and ice cream sandwiches, in addition to looming as a terrifying portent of what Jason’s future might hold if he’s unable to let go the illusions and fantasies of childhood and truly grow up. A young Ellie Kemper also makes an indelible impression as a pig-tailed Mystery Team super-fan who is even more deluded than the Team itself.
Like Betty Thomas’ Brady Bunch movies, Mystery Team earns big laughs by placing clean-cut exemplars of a sunnier, more innocent America into a sleazy contemporary context. But where the Brady Bunch films plopped Sherwood Schwartz’s outsized family into the ’90s, Mystery Team‘s doofuses look like they could have emerged whole cloth from a 1950s Boy Scout handbook, or a 1980s Steven Spielberg movie about All-American boys discovering the dark underbelly of suburbia.
The movie’s sly, inspired juxtaposition of Spielbergian innocence and Cinemax-style sleaze wouldn’t be as hilarious and weirdly poignant if the filmmakers weren’t so thoroughly invested in the retro wholesomeness of the milieu they’re so lovingly sending up. A distinct affection for a bygone era of American small-town life undercuts the film’s pungent cynicism.
Thanks in no small part to Glover, there’s a welcome sincerity that makes Mystery Team so much more than the glorified Funny or Die sketch it might look like on paper. The film may spring from a one-joke premise, but that joke works so brilliantly and consistently that subsequent jokes seem unnecessary, if not counter-productive.
Jason begins the movie an untroubled cartoon character who is even more preposterous and childlike when he’s pretending to be someone else, but over the course of the film, he grows up, comes of age, and ends up older, wiser, and ready to let go of some of his childish delusions.
How good of an actor is Glover? When Pierson’s character tells him that he’s going to college the following year, and that he assumed Jason would follow suit since they all took the ACTs and toured campuses together, Jason sees it as an act of betrayal — he had no plans to actually attend college, and thought the standardized tests and university visits were an elaborate goof. The sadness and confusion of the moment registers powerfully in Glover’s performance, despite the absurdity of the situation and the film as a whole.
Mystery Team doesn’t need to provide a satisfying emotional arc for its lead character, though. It’s a funny enough dark comedy that it doesn’t have to do anything more than be hilarious, quotable, and filled with memorable characters. But that’s ultimately what makes Mystery Team such an irresistible cult movie; it does everything better than it has to, starting with Glover making the film’s lead someone worth caring about, not just someone to laugh at.
In the decade or so since his feature film debut, Donald Glover has evolved into something remarkable, if not unprecedented, as a man and an artist. But Mystery Team serves as eminently quotable, re-watchable proof that he’s been an extraordinary talent from the very beginning.
Nathan Rabin is a freelance writer, columnist, the first head writer of The A.V. Club and the author of four books, most recently Weird Al: The Book (with “Weird Al” Yankovic) and You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me.
Follow Nathan on Twitter: @NathanRabin