”I’m a publicist, not a magician,” a PR agent tells his dissatisfied client, Captain Amazing (Greg Kinnear), in Mystery Men, a wisenheimer comic-book send-up, itself based on a comic. That the reigning superhero of Champion City employs a flack, and that the flack is indeed played by America’s greatest magician, Ricky Jay, says a lot about this larky gig: Directed by ”Yo quiero Taco Bell” adman Kinka Usher as if Joel Schumacher’s ”Batman” blueprints had been left out to bleach and crinkle in the L.A. sun, the movie throws together a hipster cast in the service of deconstructing the superhero lifestyle. And as with most hipster projects, this one’s got a bunch of great bits from a group of eccentric talents, and not enough bourgeois discipline to see the story through.
The irresistible notion of ”Mystery Men” is that while Captain Amazing is held captive by his evil, hearty-partying nemesis, Casanova Frankenstein (Geoffrey Rush), a band of nudnick superhero wannabes seize the moment to show their stuff and improve their media profiles. Their stuff, though, is ludicrously dubious: The Blue Raja (Hank Azaria, divinely faux-British) throws cutlery — but never knives; Mr. Furious (apoplectic Ben Stiller) lives up to his name as a ”ticking time bomb of fury”; The Shoveler (William H. Macy), an earnest Everyman wacky only in his obsession (a great Macy specialty), wields digging implements; The Spleen (Paul Reubens, recycling Pee-wee Herman faces) produces near-lethal flatulence; Invisible Boy (Kel Mitchell) becomes transparent only if no one looks at him; The Bowler (Janeane Garofalo) strikes down adversaries with a ball containing the skull of her dead-but-still-nagging father.
It’s a mystery that ”Mystery Men” ever wrapped at all, given the performers involved, each probably loath to stifle ad-libbed zingers even after Usher yelled ”Cut!” Of course, Usher could have ditched shtick in the editing, too. But what to lose? The nutty, too-long bit in which Wes Studi, as a bargain-basement Yoda, teaches cooperation by reciting inane aphorisms? The goofy, too-long superhero audition sequence? The clunky, plot-propelling transitions staged on obsessively ornate sets? ”We fight crime. Call it what you will,” The Shoveler says of his team’s claim to superhero status. Call ”Mystery Men” a sketchbook in search of a movie; it’s still a super idea in a summer of flackery.