Masterminds is the summation of the strangest cinematic formula imaginable. You know director Jared Hess from such quirkiness as Napoleon Dynamite and Don Verdean, which he wrote alongside his wife Jerusha. You’ve witnessed how far off the beaten path his vision wanders, and you’ve probably sat there dumbfounded by the likes of Napoleon’s family and Nacho Libre. So what does Relativity Media do with such an individualistic filmmaker, who seems more comfortable writing his own material? Give him a ready-made script penned by three fairly fresh writers, cast A-list names and attempt to restrain Hess’ awkwardness for mainstream success. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, much like the actual bank heist Hess’ film is based on, everything.
Zach Galifianakis stars as Loomis Fargo security guard David Ghantt, who’s described as the lovechild of “Kenny Rodgers and Kenny Loggins.” His dreams of an exciting professional career that involves fighting off robbers ends up turning into a reality of driving money around, until ex-partner Kelly (Kristen Wiig) offers David the payday of a lifetime. Local scumbag Steve (Owen Wilson) hatches a plan to rob David’s armored transport company, and Kelly convinces David to be their inside man. David agrees – mainly to please Kelly – and before you know it, the bumbling nice guy is driving away with $17 million and a plane ticket to Mexico. Unfortunately, Steve has other plans for their partnership once the fuzz starts asking questions (lead investigator played by Leslie Jones), which unknowingly starts a war between dumb and dumber.
The reality is, audiences are currently stuck in this laughless vortex of immature, dumbfounding mainstream comedies that have done away with mechanics such as wit, intellect and even the smallest semblance of ambition. Masterminds is no different, enticing viewers with comedic riffs off poop jokes and redneck misunderstandings. Ever wanted to see Zach Galifianakis shart in a pool (on camera, at least)? Masterminds is your savoir. Honestly, Hess’ “Jason Boring” feels like a trailer-trash MacGruber spinoff, right down to funny drawings by its lead, more bad Wiig singing and super-throwback technology jokes.
A 1997 “Hicksville,” North Carolina setting means aesthetics reflect an even older 80s reality, mixed with Ghantt’s armband CD holder (a sleeve of 10 CDs where an iPod might rest) and terrible mullets/bangs all around. Those are the jokes. “Look how old-school and mindless these guys/gals are!” Stupidity reigns supreme, as three different writers plot notes like “David throws money in van. David tries again and misses. He misses four more times. Then he steps in a bucket and falls. Haha, what a silly man!” – or that’s how I assume the Masterminds script reads. Slap noises, details about exaggerated facial hair and enormously exaggerated truths. This is something that Hess cannot correct through direction, and we’re left with a wonky mixture of unrealistic absurdity that tells a very-real crime.
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Hess does manage to slip his signature silliness in wherever possible, yet not with a balanced touch. Essentially, Hess has one foot in the kiddie pool and one foot out, so as not to overload the senses on a Napoleon Dynamite level. Smaller details like Steve’s mermaid-themed party decorations (two strung-out, old hippies dressed in full mermaid costumes, sleeveless butlers) and David’s missing car door (replaced with hinged wood) exist on another plane, but a more mainstream stranglehold never allows Hess to fully embrace the height of his weirdness potential. Masterminds lives in this half-ass world between Hess’ brand of strange and a boring, vapid, not-so-secret agent comedy, never steadying its footing on either extreme. I hate using phrases like “a paycheck movie,” but that’s what Masterminds feels like more often than not – minimum effort in hopes of a maximum reward.
When I’m not laughing at Kristen Wiig, there’s an issue. Some of you might be done with Galifianakis’ empty-minded boyishness the minute his opening narration kicks in – that’s a fair argument. Others will give up on Galifianakis upon his formal introduction, as most jokes that follow are of a physical and follicle nature (LOL, HE HAS BAD HAIR). Those are expected when you give a wacky comedian nothing but awkward poses and blank stares to work with – but shame on Masterminds for wasting Kristen Wiig. The SNL alumni excels at standing out in more colorful roles, so of course she’s the straight-player amidst Hess’ team of numskulls. Remarks towards Leslie Jones are disappointingly means-spirited (continually called a man), Ken Marino is wheeled in for one scene to be shirtless and Kate McKinnon plays a more deadpan version of her Ghostbusters character, Jiillian Holtzman. Can anyone say wasted potential all around?
If you’re laughing at all throughout Masterminds, it’s probably because of Jason Sudeikis. His lone gunman represents everything that makes a Jared Hess character work – moronic ambivalence mixed with psychotic confidence – but he’s only one fish in a sea of floating corpses. Unfortunately, Hess’ influence merely flickers instead of shining strong and bright, which makes for a pseudo-true, and consistently idiotic heist film that fails to deliver much of anything. The only positive here is that at a brisk 94 minutes, it’s over before it ever begins – both a comment on length, and the film’s inability to tell a lasting, humorous story between a goofy beginning and an even goofier end.
Jared Hess is at his best when writing his own wacky stories, not when he's forced to strive for lowest-common-denominator laughs - like in Masterminds.