Given his scene-stealing work as Lando Calrissian in Solo: A Star Wars Story and the artistic poignancy of his masterwork music video “This is America,” it should surprise no one that when Donald Glover made his film debut in the very silly indie Mystery Team (2009), he was the MVP. As one-third of Derrick Comedy, the sketch trio behind Mystery Team (the others are D.C. Pierson and Dominic Dierkes), Glover is the most fascinating component of this gem (now available on Hulu) that would make for strong counter-programming to Solo: A Star Wars Story.
One could see more than a decade ago, as he toiled in the CollegeHumor-hosted days of Derrick Comedy, that Glover was a star in the making, whether he was playing a 1930s jazz musician who farts in a trumpet to antagonize white audiences or an overemotional ex-boyfriend turning film class into a crusade against his ex. It wasn’t just that Glover had considerably better line-delivery than his teammates, but that he had a great range for the hilarious sadness of his striking characters from the very beginning. But while those shorts displayed how Glover and company can create characters and fill three minutes out of a solid goof, Mystery Team proved that he could lead an entire film, while working in a class of talent all his own.
For R-rated comedies that dream to add a fresh take to the ol’ arrested development concept, Dan Eckman’s Mystery Team has one that would make Adam McKay and Will Ferrell proud — a trio of suburban kid detectives who grew up solving innocuous mysteries (involving stolen pies or missing pets) are now graduating from high school. Dominic Dierkes plays the scrawny Charlie, the muscle of the group (who can barely lift weights, as shown in a brief gag), D.C. Pierson is the bespectacled Duncan, a self-professed “boy genius” (because he’s read a book about 1,001 wacky facts), and Glover is Jason, the Mystery Team ringleader who can’t blend in as well as he thinks.
As innocent as they are delusional, these three man-children believe they’re hotshot crime-solvers in a neighborhood where the actual young kids, their of-age classmates, and the shadowy grown-ups are annoyed with their crime-solving as if it were a community curse. Using a softly lit New Hampshire suburb as its setting, Mystery Team is like Bad Hardy Boys, in line with the Derrick Comedy sketches that poke at the delicacy of youth (as with “Keyboard Kid”) and hint at a darker reality on the fringe.
Just like Lucy’s psychiatry “office” in the Peanuts saga, the Mystery Team have a booth on their front lawn. One day, a quiet little girl pulls up in her bike and tries to enlist their help. They think it’s going to be a case they’ve dealt with before. But they’re completely shocked when she asks them to solve the murder of her parents.
In a script by Derrick Comedy (with additional story credits going to director Eckman and sometimes Derrick Comedy sketch actress Meggie McFadden), the abrasively dark whodunit makes for a very funny and unpredictable course of events, as they use cartoonish disguises (dandies; wholesome college students) to unsuccessfully infiltrate their quiet suburb’s most insidious corners. Glover excels in particular during these sequences, his gift for character obvious when portraying Jason as pretending to be someone else. The joke of characters in disguise doesn’t have the highest life expectancy (a Scooby-Doo story doesn’t even use it that much), but Glover is a key part in keeping the joke consistently rewarding.
As its story finds itself in strange places and gets shocking humor out of its innocent set-up, Mystery Team is the rare comedy that continuously pops, especially with its filmmaking. Productively inspired by the frugal schedules of making sketch comedy, Mystery Team uses many smooth Steadicam shots (allowing cinematographer Austin F. Schmidt to walk with actors and move around them easily) to make its many ensemble scenes as efficient as possible. Scenes aren’t chopped up, and the camera tries to capture as many visual jokes and funny lines in the same shot as possible, creating a tightness overall. And true to his style of being very talented, Glover accompanies the action with an original score that he wrote, composing a mystery-solving motif that sounds like thrift-store John Williams, appropriate for the low-budget but rich vision of the film.
Mystery Team also gets its energy from the familiar faces that appear in almost every major scene. Wait, is that Aubrey Plaza? Do I spy Ben Schwartz with some dialogue, sitting at a strip club? Why is Bobby Moynihan throwing ice cream sandwiches at Donald Glover? Wow, look at Matt Walsh’s cowboy hat. These faces may not have been that recognizable in 2009, but it makes Mystery Team age even better. Plus, the film features Ellie Kemper, star of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, talking to, and then kicking over, a trash can.
With a gem like Mystery Team, viewers should come for the Glover factor but be prepared to enjoy the whole thing to the end. Almost a decade since its premiere at Sundance in 2009, Glover may have understandably moved on from this level of goofiness (aside from glimmers seen in his recent Saturday Night Live performance), to the more intricate ideas of Atlanta. But Mystery Team will always be there in his resume, proving that his Lando-size charisma started with him becoming a master of disguise.