The Mystery of Kinka Usher

The answer to the eternal question: What ever happened to the director of ‘Mystery Men’?

The first thing to notice about Kinka Usher’s Twitter account — which we’ll assume is the real deal, even in the absence of a blue check mark — is its profile description: “I directed the movie that actually made All Star by Smash Mouth popular.” As far as legacies go, we can agree this would be an ignoble one, assuming that’s all there was to it. The description does not clarify the movie in question however.

So then, the second thing to notice, after a bit of scrolling, is the title of said movie: Mystery Men. The film, based on marginal superhero characters from an obscure comic book (where my Flaming Carrot fans at?) and released in 1999, stars Ben Stiller, William H. Macy, Janeane Garofalo, and an almost literally unbelievable list of others. Smash Mouth is indeed heard on the soundtrack. At the time, the only contemporary comic book movies of note, for better or worse, were Blade (good enough), Men in Black (very good), and, gulp, Batman & Robin (yikes). These were different times, and Mystery Men was a bit ahead of them.

If this is all starting to sound like a load of answers to unwanted trivia questions, that’s part of Mystery Men’s, and by extension Usher’s, true legacy. The third thing to notice here is actually something bigger, something that’s not on the Twitter account at all. It requires a moment’s digging elsewhere, and produces a somewhat startling fact: Mystery Men is the only feature film Usher ever directed. And yet, almost 20 years later, he and the film are still out there.

There’s perhaps an obvious reason for Usher’s absence. Despite being headlined by a surplus of recognizable faces — if not huge bankable movie stars — Mystery Men flopped. It earned a mere $33 million worldwide against a $68 million production budget. Not the best turn of events. Still, filmmakers have bounced back from worse receipts — Michael Cimino, for example, made four more movies after his Heaven’s Gate debacle, and he was a pain in the ass about it. It seems unnecessarily cruel to vanquish Usher from feature film directing after one misstep. But then, that begs the question: How did Usher get the chance to direct in the first place?

The link provided in Usher’s Twitter account is instructive. It points to his bio on a site for Hungry Man Productions, which he joined in late 2013. In short strokes, we get the particulars. Usher was born in France, and then raised in Italy and Santa Barbara, California. Helpfully, he was surrounded by creative types from birth: his mother was a dance teacher, his father a graphic designer. In 1992, Usher directs his first commercial; in 1996 he opens the cleverly named House of Usher Films to make more. Then come the hits: ad campaigns for Got Milk?, Pepsi, Nike, and Apple, among others. In March 1999, Usher is named Best Commercial Director for the year of 1998 by the Director’s Guild of America. He is 39 years old and his moment in the sun is less than six months away. He made it.

But such is the life of commercial film directors: the layperson knows none of this story. Why would anyone even seek it out? While we deify filmmakers, use single names to summarize entire artistic movements or cultural touchstones, obsessively rank and consider them, most know nothing about the industrious commercial director, the maker of that stunning Nissan commercial back in 1997 (ranked number seven on Ad Age’s list of best car commercials of the past 25 years). Their work is just 30 seconds of product — not art — to be consumed, disposed of, and forgotten about.

Kinka Usher’s cameo in Mystery Men

On the other hand, have you seen Mystery Men lately? There’s a lot to take in here. A quick summary: Champion City’s defender of the innocent, Captain Amazing (Greg Kinnear at his smarmiest), frees noted supervillain Casanova Frankenstein (Geoffrey Rush at his most arch), to give himself some quality superhero-ing to do. The plan goes awry after Frankenstein captures Amazing, which opens the door for a ragtag gang of misfits to save the day. Said misfits are led by the Shoveller (Macy), the Blue Raja (Hank Azaria), and Mr. Furious (Stiller), and joined later by the Bowler (Garofalo), Invisible Boy (Kel Mitchell), the Spleen (Paul Reubens), and the Sphinx (Wes Studi). The good guys face off against everyone from Pras, to Eddie Izzard, to Lena Olin, before saving the city. Also, since it’s the 90s, Claire Forlani stops by to make eyes at Stiller. Like I said, it’s a lot.

Now, I’ll be the first to acknowledge the depreciative role time has had on some of Mystery Men. The special effects — setting aside the Bowler’s pink skull bowling ball — have dated poorly, the film’s more puerile jokes have only grown more tired, and, as AV Club’s Nathan Rabin rightly points out, there’s a tad too much Batman & Robin in it, an affectation equating the comic book movie with day-glo Art Deco and camp. Usher’s commercial sensibility doesn’t always help, often larding scenes to be as dense as possible. If you were feeling less than charitable, you’d call the film something of a mess. In fact, Roger Ebert declared exactly that, writingMystery Men has moments of brilliance waving their arms to attract attention in a sea of dreck. It’s a long, shapeless, undisciplined mess, and every once in awhile it generates a big laugh.” Oof.

Messes aside, Usher and his legacy also had to contend with urban legend. Owing to a stray misquote from Tom Waits (did I mention he’s also in the film? Tom Waits is in the film), some began insisting the true helmer of Mystery Men to be none other than Tim Burton. If you’re Usher, this has to read as a mild insult. Not because late 90s Burton was a hack beyond compare (quite the opposite), but because of how dismissive it sounds. No one had heard of Usher then, his name, quite frankly, sounded vaguely made up, and as the years have passed with no other films bearing his credit, it became easier to imagine him as a hoax. As recently as this year, Usher still can’t believe it. Me personally, I’d be irate.

In listening to Mystery Men’s DVD commentary however, it’s clear that all of this could not have happened to a nicer guy. Throughout the film’s two hour run time, Usher goes to great lengths to credit and praise everyone who worked on the film. The stars get their due of course, but also the extras (including everyone from a surfer buddy to Michael Bay), the crew, and each and every person who managed to chip in with an idea to help the film. Despite what sounds like a tough re-write process — which explains some of the film’s more disjointed moments — Usher talks like a man who is proud of a job if not done well, then, well, at least done. He remains unperturbed for all time.

If there was any acrimony on set of Mystery Men, it’s hard to uncover. The notes of discord with the cast are few — Stiller didn’t want to put his feet into whole watermelons, Garofalo wasn’t crazy about bowling lessons, Mitchell was freaked about appearing naked for a beat. (Out of context, these anecdotes make the film sound absolutely insane.) In all, Usher gets most frustrated with back-to-back effects shots involving the team’s armoured transport truck and its collision with the gate and front door of Frankenstein’s lair. “Too many sparks” he says, before lamenting the ruined visual. “Kind of mildly disappointed about that.” Let’s go ahead and take “terrible attitude” off the list of reasons Usher never directed a feature again.

The history of one-and-done directors remains linked to personality anyway. Tony Kaye raged against the machine for a long time, Kerry Conran was befuddled by Hollywood, Bill Murray took an idea out for a spin and then wandered away, as is his wont. The patron saint of these souls is Charles Laughton, a storied actor of stage and screen, who directed but one film, the classic The Night of the Hunter. In its time, his film bombed at the box office and was discarded by critics too. And yet, it is so singular and pure in its vision, the film survives today as a remarkable monument of the form. Laughton died seven years after making it, but what a delight it might have been to track the film’s reappraisal along with him. (Especially since, according to his wife, Laughton made it to spite James Agee. Not all heroes wear capes, I guess.)

I love Mystery Men, but it is not The Night of the Hunter, even if they now share this trivial bond and somewhat similar fate as cult classics. And look, I get it: Why should we even care about Kinka Usher? He made one film that is wildly interesting to some (me), but largely forgotten by the culture at large. There’s no prickly personality here, no meltdowns on the record. Usher is still making commercials, banking Clio awards, and getting into playful back and forths with the likes of Dane Cook (who also has a cameo in Mystery Men). Maybe it’s just the unlikely acceptance of it all that gets me.

Last year, Usher tweeted about working on a new “mystery” project. Is he restless to get back in the game and amend his legacy? Is a sequel to Mystery Men in the works? I doubt it. But I also get the feeling Usher is content. On the commentary, he approaches a fitting personal ethos: “But that’s the nature of filmmaking. Sometimes things work, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes you just have to go with what you get and just hope it doesn’t make that much of a difference.” As artistic statements go, this one is pretty mild. Then again, these are the words of a man at peace with his work, his art, and making All Star by Smash Mouth popular.

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