As the title of Jonathan Wacks’s film implies, this is a Mystery Date, meaning that when Tom McHugh (Ethan Hawke) picks up the beautiful girl housesitting next door, Geena Matthews (Teri Polo), for a night on the town anything could happen. Four years later, of course, Ethan Hawke went on the greatest mystery date of ‘em all, walking and talking with Julie Delpy all night in Vienna. That, however, was a Best Case Mystery Date; “Mystery Date” is a Worst Case Mystery Date. That is to say, a seemingly light, little romantic comedy quickly devolves into blood, murder and mayhem, akin to another 1991 film that felt like 1980s cinematic surplus, Richard Grieco’s semi-star vehicle “If Looks Could Kill.” There, however, Grieco found himself mired in a case of mistaken identity where everyone presumed he was with the CIA whereas in “Mystery Date” Hawke finds himself mired in a case of mistaken identity where everyone think he’s a thief.
The real thief is actually Tom’s big brother Craig, who is played by Brian McNamara as if he were a kind of preppy Tom Kazansky. He turns up announced, quickly cajoles his little brother into asking out Geena by phone and goes about making over Tom in his own image, dressing him in nifty clothing, even getting him glasses. If this would seem to suggest a problematic case of Big Brother Envy, “Mystery Date” is not the kind of movie determined to even vaguely explore such angles. No, Craig remakes Tom as Craig, going so far as to hand over his wallet and ID to his little brother, to provide an alibi for the various bits of nefarious business he has actually to come to town to attend to. Hijinks ensue when a number of baddies mistake Tom for Craig.
Alas, writers Parker Bennett and Terry Runte are conspicuously unable to weave the date itself into these hijinks. No, they seem to have given more thought to the vengeful flower delivery driver (played by a game Fisher Stevens) who keeps turning up at all the wrong moments only to be consistently thwarted in his quest for reprisal than they have to Geena, who just sort of fades into the background even as she remains almost permanently fixed to Tom’s side. An annoying movie-watching realist, in fact, might be libel to argue that she should just walk out on this date when it starts going wrong. But to the immense credit of Teri Polo, she plays at something here, allowing an eagerness in her eyes to come through in spite of her non-existent backstory and dearth of opportunities to even minimally express who she is.
No, she’s having fun, by God. Why there was even a moment where I briefly thought she was going to play co-conspirator with him. Alas, Bennett and Runte’s screenplay predictably has her storm out on Tom at just the wrong moment so she can become a Damsel in Distress and I sunk back into my seat and mentally threw up my hands. Way to break the mold, fellas.
The only real attempts to break the mold here are in the performances. Like B.D. Wong, playing the requisite villain, in this case a Chinese gangster who often comes across less traditionally menacing than quirkily unhinged. He’s a worthy adversary, even if his various henchmen are obligatorily inept. Of course, the real adversary here is Craig. Or, at least, it should be Craig. The more Tom discovers about who his brother really is, the less he likes him, yet this fallout of brotherly admiration barely registers because, like so many other details, the screenplay really doesn’t care. Still, in those brief moments near the conclusion when Tom confronts Craig, the young Mr. Hawke convinces.
You, astute reader, are likely wondering why I, idiot reviewer, am critiquing a movie from 1991 for a series purporting to flash back to the 1980s. Well, as it turned out, this was not simply because “Mystery Date” was released right in that murky middle ground where the previous decade is still going on in the new one, but because in Mr. Hawke’s youthful face, conspicuously minus a goatee and absent any sense of brooding, the last vestiges of 1980s teen movies can be found. Those movies were often make-believe, not unlike that shining city on a hill, where nights with Chinese gangsters hot on your trail would still somehow always end up okay. Why you can almost see the Ethan Hawke of a few years later watching “Mystery Date”, taking a drag from his cigarette and remarking “What a bunch of bullshit.”