If you have never been to derrickcomedy.com, then you should definitely go and give it a visit. Their comedy sketches are not exactly groundbreaking, I will not lie, but they are among the most consistently funny internet comedy sketch tropes. And now they have a made a movie; Mystery Team.
What makes Derrick Comedy funny is their attempt to place every day values in places that are quite ludicrous. They take aim at corporations using shortcuts to childhood and its clash with the values of their dysfunctional parents. Plus, they take a rather Pythonesque view of punchlines. Usually the premise is all they need.
This is certain a fine approach for their five minute sketches. And it is the same approach that they use for a ninety minute movie. This was actually quite brave; normally what works as a sketch cannot sustain itself for a feature film (as Lorne Michaels has proven time and time again). But Mystery Team holds up surprisingly well, even if it is quite obviously a first attempt.
The plot is, in a nutshell, is Encyclopedia Brown attempting to solve a case more suited for Sam Spade. A group of teenagers, Duncan (D.C. Pierson) who calls himself a “boy genius,” Charlie (Dominic Dierkes) who was once the strongest boy in town but now is slightly lacking, and leader Jason (Donald Glover), the de facto leader of the group, all solve playground mysteries. The were once admired but now are considered a joke, still trying to solve the same sort of cases. One day a little girl Bianca and her older sister Kelly (Aubrey Plaza, star of the upcoming Scott Pilgrim vs The World) inadvertently hire them to find their parents’ murderer. It leads them on the sort of case that would have Jake Gittes confused, involving industrial espionage and professional hit men.
The premise itself is funny enough, and reveals the sort of progression that is normal but had never been examined. Why do children, who usually start on mystery novellas as there first real reading, later move onto Quentin Tarantino? It is not something that has ever been examined. That is not to say this movie examines it; the film is merely the first to point out how absurd this transition is. Several items are either lifted directly from that genre (there is a sort of ode to the film Trainspotting in one scene) or just a discussion of noir in general. Yet the main leads never go beyond the sort of childlike demeanor they start with. Their clothes would look appropriate on a child of seven, and their language is peppered with the sort of childlike swears that are often employed by Encyclopedia Brown. Even their views of the opposite sex is severely distorted; they seem to know nothing about sex although do have some sort of longing for.
If the film has any problems, it is the fact that it uses some of the same sort of cliched aspects of storytelling. There are moments when the group threatens to come apart, including a tearful speech. Also, there is the typical man who does not know how to tell the girl he loves her. We have been down this territory before. One of the more interesting aspects of the work, involving a convenience store clerk who rewards the team with ice cream, goes nowhere. Neither does the team’s female sidekick, which is simply a punchline with no joke. I would have loved to see more with these characters and less of the stumble in the second act.
This is a relatively minor complaint. Considering this was the first time the trope had worked in this medium…well, a few have crashed and burned. Derrick Comedy managed to make the transition rather nicely. Unlike the films of, say, Adam Sandler, this trope has something to say and does a rather good job saying it. As with many good comedies, the strength is not in the punchline. Oftentimes, the punchline is the worst part. The strength is in the joke and how it is told. Mystery Team tells its joke very well, even if it does often stop to catch its breath and remember how exactly the phrasing went.